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So this is how it is, fancy stained glass next to cow shit.from the film, Ida

On April 15, 2010, an op-ed by Polish author, Olga Tokarczuk, appeared in the New York Times concerning the mysterious plane crash in Russia’s Katyn forest that killed the Polish president and some of the country’s military and political leaders.  That they were on their way to the site of a Soviet massacre of Polish officers during WWII is a terrible irony. Her concluding commentary making this tragedy into a symbolic statement about the lingering ghosts of Polish history is quite another:

I am sick of building our common identity around funeral marches and failed uprisings. I dream of Poland becoming a modern society that is defined not by the crippling nature of history, but by our individual achievements, a sense of our own self-worth and ideas for the future.

At that time I was fighting a fortress of resistance in Wrocław while aiming to catapult a badly deteriorating 13th century ghost infested guard tower into the 21st century. Of all people, leading the the resistance was my landlord, who also just so happened to be a highly regarded Polish author, her obsessive ambition in the name of self worth being to mortally cripple my grand ambitions. One would have naturally concluded that we shared the same sense of purpose when I became her chosen tenant. She was a writer, I an artist and she had claimed to have selected me among many candidates due to my artistic plans for her most rare new architectural acquisition.

Yet, Tokarczuk’s harsh commentary about her country could not have possibly reflected anything more acrimonious than the fact that six days before the publication of her New York Times op-ed, I received an eviction notice from my landlord. The transparently malicious act of passive aggressive harassment was legally unenforceable because the results of a court case that my landlord had instigated in justifying the eviction was still pending. By no means was it coincidental that on that same day I hosted an opening reception for an international Mexican artist residing in Berlin, Guillermo Roel, who I personally invited to Poland. It was just as telling that despite extensive promotion, the local mass media ignored the event. I pondered what this said about Wrocław, whereas the Mexican Ambassador in the capital city of Warsaw sent me a congratulatory letter:

The Mexican Ambassador’s letter

This spooky act of intimidation was doubly shocking given that Wrocław was busy promoting itself as “The Meeting Place,” a booming multicultural urban center. Were they afraid of a stampede of immigrant Mexican bandidos? On top of that, at the same time the city was a candidate to win an annual distinction of becoming a European Culture Capital for the year 2016. It was further not as if Roel and I were neophytes in Europe for he had lived in Paris, Barcelona and Berlin whereas I had lived for many years in Paris and Barcelona.

To what extent this projection proved to be accurate, its significance proved to be prophetic.

What had inspired me to participate in the astonishing growth I had seen firsthand since the country’s liberation in 1989 was slowly coming to an incomprehensibly disillusioning end. Around two years later I left Poland in the same cloud of secrecy that kept my landlord’s identity as a real estate investor under cover. Most eerily similar to Ms. Tokarczuk, my former landlord, who was known for her mythological writing style, also proved to be a master of creating a mythology about her own life. Since portraying herself as a poor Polish woman the first day that we met, she managed to hide from the public the truth about her one monthly source of income during the prior few years. As Olga Tokarczuk most amusingly revealed in a Radio Free Europe interview only two months after publication of her New York Times op-ed, being a well traveled Polish literary star was not the easiest path to economic security. Nor was it as convenient as hoped for my landlord to depend on the regular receipt of rent payments while traveling far and wide without concern for her recently purchased property, which was falling into critical disrepair.

The eviction notice arrived in the mail three months after  the was filed by my landlord in hopes of recovering several months of unpaid rent. Half of a year before that, a letter written by my lawyer in my name demanded from her a full reimbursement of my investments in her property and in the investments I had made in my business. The reason my lawyer stated in my defense was that the consequences of her failure to respond to the dangerously deteriorating condition of the tower’s roof and to make critical improvements as demanded of her in 2008 by the city’s conservatory for historical buildings was disastrous to my business. Aside from paying half of one minor patchwork roof repair, she completely ignored a pending catastrophe. Three years earlier the neighbor made demands of her to repair the roof after pieces of it fell into his adjoining parking lot below. Two years earlier the director of the conservatory of historical buildings made formal demands of her to completely restore the roof and the tower’s exterior. This included reopening a passage to its door through a medieval fortification wall attached to the tower that for many years had been closed. While she failed to act, I continued to make major investments on the tower’s interior restoration, which would ultimately be for her financial benefit.

The media hush up was so pervasive that after a journalist at a local English language radio station asked me why my landlord did not wish for her ownership of Baszta to be known, the station’s management banished the recording and fired the interviewer. In a celebratory moment, the journalist confessed this to me when she appeared at the Mexican artist’s reception on the same day that I received the eviction notice in the mail.

Having been asked the same question countless times since then, I believe that the reasons are several, beginning with the nepotistic ways that resources and property ownership have often fallen into private hands in the wake of the communist era. This perhaps helps answer a larger question I have frequently been asked: how was it possible for a private person to own such a historical landmark?


Along with all else that was kept a secret in the purported new era of free enterprise and free democratic expression are the futuristic architectural renderings in the background slide presentation of this page that I commissioned from Wrocław architect, Tomasz Szenk. These drawings and those shown on the following page further illustrates a concept that I conveyed to him which was intended to solve a myriad of problems pertaining to space, allure and most of all the location of the building. (More is said about these drawings in Chapter Six). Baszta was only a seven minute walk from the heart of the city center and a stone’s throw from touristic Ostrów Tumski (Cathedral Island). Even so, there were serious obstacles to its accessibility, starting with the gateway through the medieval fortress wall that is attached to the tower, which for unknown reasons had been filled in with bricks many years ago.

In my mind, the idea I had devised was completely logical. In 2011, the largest city in western Poland, which has become a center for the headquarters of many multinational businesses, won the the 2016 European Culture Capital title. The timing could not have appeared to be more fortuitous. The rare specialization of my professional background seemed to perfectly match this one-in-a-million opportunity that had fallen into the palm of my hand: to propose a unique futuristic revival of a neglected precious symbol of Wrocław’s medieval origins during a period of dynamic urban redevelopment. This included the gentrification of a beautiful central city market square known as “Rynek” (pronounced: Rih-neck), renovation of the opera house, train station, synagogue and Ostrów Tumski. Shortly after I left Poland in 2012, construction of a new football stadium and Wrocław’s first bona fide skyscraper were completed.

Great art requires a bold vision

From a visionary artist’s perspective, I saw the potential of Wrocław the first time I visited the city in 1989 when I photographed some of its decayed buildings. After leaving Poland in ’89, I went to great lengths during travel in western Europe to expose the decayed conditions I had seen. I quickly recognized Wrocław’s unique position situated almost equidistant between Warsaw to the east, Berlin to the west and Prague down south. Foreign businessmen also began to visualize what I did of the city’s enormous potential. Having worked and closely associated with architects for many years, associations with specific cities immediately come to mind for one reason above all others: unique expressions of monumental architecture. This is the case from the fantasy architecture of Antoni Gaudi in Barcelona to the Statue of Liberty and the Eiffel Tower, to name a few obvious examples. Often such monumental undertakings happen to be towers and in recent times a few that have become symbols of major urban centers have incorporated dramatic glass structures. One of them is the glass dome of Berlin’s Reichstag, just three hours away from Wrocław by car. Another striking case in point is I.M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid in Paris.

It was also obvious to me that such undertakings cannot be achieved without anticipating enormous resistance to ideas for the future and that this is nothing specific to only Poland. At first even the New York Times was against the Statue of Liberty. Likewise, at first a large majority of the French populace reacted negatively to the Louvre Pyramid. My idea somewhat unconsciously reflected an homage to Pei, whose battle, which I had read about while living in Paris at that time, kept me fighting on with an inbred Californian spirit of open minded optimism no matter what anyone thought or said.

Cover of Glass Art magazine, 1976

by Wilhelm Buschulte

Having worked for many years as an architectural glass artist and as the former editor of a magazine about contemporary glas art, I was fascinated by contemporary architectural applications of glass in historical buildings. Such a phenomenon occurred after the Second World War in towns surrounding Cologne and Dusseldorf. Enormous stained glass windows the likes of which no one had ever before seen were installed in numerous public buildings. The spirit was essentially the same as what motivated Olga Tokarczuk’s expressed frustrations: aesthetic modernization was the direct outcome of a will to distance a war torn country from its dreadfully morbid past. Photographs of these dramatic stained glass artworks were first exposed internationally in the magazine that I had edited. During my first visit to Europe in 1979 I met one of the artists, Wilhelm Buschulte, and I photographed some of his monumental architectural stained glass compositions, which had received little recognition even in Germany. As an old cover of “Glass Art” magazine depicts, the same can be said of Ludwig Schaffrath, who became quite famous among glass artists and architects in the U.S.

Stained glass ceiling, Embassy Suite Hotel, Indianapolis, by Frederick Abrams

Aside from my specialized background, in my veins was the blood of my grandfather, Myron Abrams, a building contractor of Polish heritage. It only seemed natural to aspire to make the most of this once in a lifetime destined opportunity that had fallen into my hands through a series of seemingly serendipitous circumstances. Yet, no matter how often I heard oohs and aahs from those to whom I showed these architectural renderings, I was repeatedly confronted with the same doubts about altering the look of a historical monument. To this I repeatedly answered:

Such battles were long since fought and won elsewhere in Europe. Poland today is a European Union member and for an unknown city to be recognized by the outer world requires bold thinking.

Shortly before his passing, I interviewed ninety-one year old Wrocław architect, Mirosław Przylecki, who restored Baszta after World War II. With help of a waitress who asked him questions in Polish language, I showed Przylecki framed prints of these images that were exhibited on the walls of the tower’s interior just before Abrams’ Tower closed for good:

                                                       Translation: Iwona Kajko

It seemed senseless that there would be such resistance since I was the only one who had any ambition or will to do something about a historical landmark that was rotting to its core. Nor was there much of a choice given that my wanderlust landlord was traveling abroad most of the time and that she had clearly decided to invest all of her energies and resources elsewhere. Being the sole owner of a restaurant in a redeveloping foreign economy is one thing; it’s another to be abandoned by the landlord with the albatross of a disintegrating 13th century roof hovering ominously over one’s head. Meanwhile, with historical buildings being restored, new construction emerging across the city’s landscape, new western style shopping malls and corporate brand name businesses spreading like a cancer, Abrams’ Tower was dying a slow, painful death.


The building’s porous roof in dire need of major restoration became the central battleground as I faced debilitating bureaucratic practices still unchanged since the darkest days of communism. It boggled my mind that no one seemed to recognize cause and effect, that in a capitalist jungle one must earn money in order to pay the bills, salaries and so forth. I could visualize my gravestone to be inscribed after the roof caved in: “P.T.R.” (Pay the Rent). As each patchwork roof repair only briefly postponed the inevitable, a complete restoration was the only solution. With limited means at my disposal as a tenant, I did my best to assist my impoverished globe trotting ghost landlord to raise the necessary funding. In each and every case, she did her best to see that this would never happen, that is, as long as I was her guinea pig tenant.

Various investors I had attracted proposed to me a partnership. One by one she frightened them away. The first in line was a Pole who had lived in New York for fifteen years and he flew to Wrocław to formalize our partnership. A meeting together with the landlord cost me the funding I needed to finish the restoration. One of the hard lessons that cost me dearly was that time in Europe, and particularly in a former communist country, moves much slower. The five year lease I had signed was not long enough to recoup our investment and begin making profits, my partner-to-never-be rightly said, but she refused to extend its duration. He then met a restaurant owner who told him that no foreigner could last in his business for longer than six months. He was the first of several Poles I met, who lived abroad harboring hopes of cashing in on their country’s new free enterprise economy, yet, who became quickly spooked upon a brief visit, then got back onto a plane without waving goodbye.

Most peculiarly, the only people the landlord ever seemed to take seriously were ambitious Polish managers I had hired, who had no money to invest and no stakes in the business. If there was any spying going on, I eventually learned through my workers of the private liaisons she had with them.

Unsolicited art exhibition in the stairwell

Banderole and beer inspection

Meanwhile, bureaucratic institutions were targeting my business with one frivolous accusation after the next. I was twice fined due to baseless investigations into fictitious illegal alcohol sales. Despite no proof beyond pathetically weak circumstantial evidence, there was no means of contesting the penalties. During one tax office control, inspectors found stamps called “banderoles” missing from a few wine bottles. Importers themselves had to apply glue to the elongated stamps which came with no adhesive. Depending on which glue they chose, some of them easily fell off. No matter, inspectors found a few missing banderoles which was considered to be sufficient evidence. This alone was enough to conclude that I had smuggled alcohol across the border without paying tariffs. During another control it was alleged that water was being somehow mixed into kegs of beer, an old communist era trick that I would never have dreamed of or known how to do. The inspector said that someone had called them on the phone and made this accusation. This stunned me for I was the proud seller of an award winning unpasteurized Polish beer that was hard to find in Wrocław. Most bars and restaurants sold the same brand names and bribes offered by the distributors were usually tied to such agreements. The inspectors taped, signed and stamped a jar containing beer that was poured from a keg, took it to a lab and found that nothing was wrong with it. In this one instance they could not come up with an excuse to penalize me. One of the inspectors confessed afterward that she wished she could manage my business to protect me from people like herself. The most frightening of all such incidents almost landed me in prison when inspectors discovered clever wiring of my electrical system aimed to cut down on my monthly bills, another post-communist tactic that I had never heard of.

Eventually I lived in terror of who would next enter the door, when things got so ugly that the tower was attacked in my absence by neo-Nazi vandalism. As assaults on my business became a pattern, my constantly traveling landlord either acted naive or became hostile when I bothered her with what she haughtily reacted to as if I was disturbing her over trivial, tiring nuisances.

While my life had become a daily torment of dealing with attitudes and practices born in the old corrupt communist system, many young people began to obtain fairly well paid positions, by Polish standards, working for multinational corporations which were springing up everywhere. Foreigners who ran them lived in bubbles of comfort in new condos, going to work in modern offices in new buildings, precious little of which existed for most of the first ten years that I lived in Poland. Most who arrived during this new era of globalization had no notion of what life was like for most Poles or for foreigners such as myself who had no alternative other than to depend on the locals in numerous ways for daily survival. Consumerism and a greater degree of freedom to express oneself, to congregate and to travel has without question changed the lives of much of the populace. Yet, while on the surface the differences today between Ukraine and Poland are huge, I find another bitter irony in president Obama’s lecturing to Ukrainians on the success of Poland’s free enterprise economy. Passages of a book published in 1999 called, “Culture Shock! Ukraine,” that I had picked up in a Los Angeles bookstore while visiting home in 2001, precisely describes the depressing side of Poland I came to know years later. Written by American Meredith Dalton from Austin, Texas, her words struck me right in the gut:

For over seventy years, the Soviet system infected most citizens with the notion that capitalism is about grabbing, cheating, and wheeling and dealing. Some foreign investors avoid types of businesses requiring storefronts, for example restaurants. One prominent European entrepreneur (in the true sense of the word) announced in late 1998 that he was throwing in the towel after seven strong years in Ukraine. Relentless corruption had finally exhausted his patience. Visibility invites the tax inspectorates in search of trumped up fines and bribes. One friend who sells used car parts was fined because the time stamped on his cash register receipts was not adjusted for daylight savings time. Westerners are perceived as wealthy thus money should be no object to them.

Only Abrams’ Tower had no storefront. With no civic help or any from my landlord, I searched for every imaginable solution to the problem that many first time visitors could not even find my restaurant. Still, its invisibility from street traffic in no way stopped civil servants representing the corrupt practices of a post-communist bureaucracy from finding their way inside. Nor did it stop them from acts of intimidation and harassment. Among my greatest fears was that losing one’s alcohol sales licenses was as good as a kiss of death.