Copernicus Center & Foundation
The Copernicus Foundation was chartered as a not-for-profit organization in July 1971 to serve the metropolitan Chicago area as a major civic, cultural, educational, recreational and entertainment resource. The Copernicus Center is supported by the Copernicus Foundation.
Chicago turned to the Foundation with a request that a statue of Nicolaus Copernicus, world-renowned Polish scientist and the Father of Modern Astronomy, be erected to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Copernicus’ birth. Copernicus is credited with “stopping the sun and starting the planets in motion in the minds of man.” This project became the first mission of the Foundation. Through solicitations from individuals, corporations, and other organizations, over $300,000 was raised. The statue was dedicated in 1973, at no cost to the city. It sits in front of the Adler Planetarium.
In 1977, the search began for a permanent site to house a Polish cultural center in Chicago. In 1979, the foundation purchased the old Gateway cinema building located near Milwaukee and Lawrence avenues. The historic portion of the building housed the first movie theater in Chicago built exclusively for the “talkies.” The Copernicus Foundation chose to preserve the theater itself while remodeling around it, dividing the original 40-foot entry lobby and constructing three floors of office, meeting rooms and classroom space for the Copernicus Center. This first stage was completed in 1981.
Since then, the theater has been cleaned, a thrust stage has been built, and the theater has been utilized for a wide variety of programs, not only Polish in nature, but a vast mix of uses by the Northern and Northwest communities. Community organizations, schools, and many varied ethnic groups use the Center on a regular basis. The stage has been host to folk dancing, classical orchestras, kabaret, graduations, beauty pageants, fashion shows, body building tournaments, International music stars, local musicians, and more.
Today, the FORMER cinema house rarely shows movies, but hosts a variety of professional shows and concerts in addition to community uses. Now equipped with modern lighting and sound technology, the theater is used an average of 48 weeks per year, with the heaviest usage during the weekends. The programs have become more sophisticated in nature and serve many more people. The theater seats 1890 and has since been renamed the Mitchell P Kobelinski Theater; honoring one of the Center’s founding fathers posthumously. Kobelinski spearheaded the renovation and modernization of the theater.
In 1985, “Solidarity Tower,” with its matching facade, was erected atop the building. The exterior of the building was modified to resemble the historic Royal Castle in Warsaw, Poland. The tower is a scale replica of the clock tower adorning the castle – it can be seen from the Kennedy Expressway. The money was raised again through the generosity of individuals and corporations in recognition of the significance contributions of the Polish community to Chicago.
Since 1979, the Copernicus Foundation annually fulfills its mission for education and entertainment in another way, by sponsoring the annual “TASTE OF POLONIA Festival.” During the festival there is a wide variety of live entertainment, food vendors serving the best of Polish cuisine, local bands playing a variety of genre (35 bands in 2013), performances by ethnic dancers and musical groups, original arts and crafts, handiwork, imported items, as well as exhibits familiarizing festival goers with many aspects of Polish customs, culture, traditions and language. It has grown to be the largest Polish Festival in the country; visited by over 35,000. The bands and music have become as much a draw as the great food and Polish beer.
The Taste of Polonia Festival takes place each Labor Day weekend, beginning on Friday and lasting four days. In 1992, President George Bush visited the festival during his stopover in Chicago and most recently festival goers heard from President Obama – among other dignitaries.
In 2011 the Copernicus Center expanded by completing the renovation of its new “Annex Venue,“ a 10,000 sq. ft. facility which houses a brand new “loft type“ meeting or event space with hardwood floors, bare brick walls and wood beamed ceilings. In addition the Annex houses the offices of several local Chambers of Commerce as well as many prominent Polish organizations.
The Center is now alive virtually every night with dance groups, classes and theatrical activities. Many options for venue rentals are now available to the public, in addition to the grounds and facilities used for community programs. Among annual activities sponsored by the Foundation are: art fairs, special exhibits, Farmer’s Markets, health fairs and seminars; free adult ESL (English as a Second Language) classes; citizenship classes; Annual Law Fair; various community seminars and meetings. A partial list of underwritten events is HERE.
The long-range plans of the Foundation Board, always mindful of its mission to serve the greater Chicagoland area, ensure that these services will continue well into the 21st century. A boost to the vitality of Jefferson Park and the Northwest Chicago neighborhoods, the Copernicus Center, a concert, culture, and community center, is a monument to the Polish American community and its desire to retain its rich heritage while serving, and entertaining, the residents of Chicago at large.