The birth of the Foundation began with erection of a statue of Nicolaus Copernicus, world-renowned Polish scientist and the Father of Modern Astronomy. The statue was placed in front of the Adler Planetarium 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.” Through solicitations from individuals, corporations, and other organizations, over $300,000 was raised. The statue was dedicated in 1973 and donated to the City. It was decided that the funds remaining from this effort would be used to start a Cultural Center.
In 1977, the search began for a permanent site to house the Polish Cultural Center in Chicago. In 1979, groundbreaking ceremonies took place at the old Gateway Theater Building located near Milwaukee and Lawrence avenues. Because the Gateway Theater historically was the first movie theater in Chicago built exclusively for the “talkies,” the Foundation decided 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 Cultural Center. This first stage was completed in 1981.
Foundation programs began in 1982 and have expanded ever since. The theater became a part of the cultural center in 1985 when the tenant, Plitt Theatres, vacated the premises. 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 also those of other ethnic groups which do not have their own facilities, e.g. East Indian, Spanish, Korean, Philippine, etc., as well as the American community. Films, musical concerts, plays, athletic competitions, seminars, dance recitals, children’s plays, to choir performances, competitions, the annual Polish Film Festival, Candidates’ Nights, are just some of the many programs presented in the theater. As knowledge of the existence of the theater grew, so did its usage and programs. The theater is now in use 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 2000.
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” outdoor festival.
During the festival there is a wide variety of live entertainment, food vendors serving the best of Polish cuisine, 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 Fest in the country.
Many languages are heard on the grounds because “Taste” has become one of the most popular ethnic fests in Chicago, drawing crowds well over 30,000 during its four day span.
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 “. A 10,000 sq. ft. facility which houses a brand new “ loft type “ meeting 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, art classes and theatrical activities. Among annual activities sponsored by the Foundation are: art fairs, special exhibits, Farmer’s Markets, annual health fairs; free adult ESL (English as a Second Language) classes; citizenship classes; Annual Law Fair; various seminars and community meetings. The long-range plans of the Foundation, 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 the Northwest Chicago neighborhood, the Copernicus Cultural and Civic Center is a monument to the Polish American community and its desire to retain its rich heritage while serving the City of Chicago at large.