Nov. 19 2008 12:00 AM

A place to call home As priorities shift, historic Polish halls role changes

Visitors swing to the beat of the Polka-Lo-Dians during Pulaski Days at Lansing's Polish Federated Home. (Mary C. Cusack/City Pulse)
Online dating services, like eHarmony.com, use scientific profiling to match up singles based on several thousand unique dimensions of personality. Lansing’s Federated Polish Home uses polka dancing, pierogies and sausage. Having tried both methods, I have to admit that the Federated Polish Home trumps eHarmony, and was a far better bargain. For less than half a month’s subscription to eHarmony, one can get a full Polish dinner accompanied by a couple of beers and the phone number of a handsome polka musician. If only the hall would host more public parties.

On a trip to the Federated Polish Home during a Pulaski Days celebration in early October (which is the only time this private club throws its doors open to the public) the sly, charismatic leader of the Polka-Lo-Dians noticed me interviewing folks and taking pictures. During a break he sidled up to me, presumably to look at my camera. Then, he rattled off in quick succession, “Are you single? How old are you?”

“See my son up there,” he asked, pointing to another band member, “He’s single. I’d like to see him settle down with a nice girl.”

The whole scene was humorous, charming and flattering, but more important, it serves as a perfect illustration of why this Lansing institution has survived for 79 years: the importance of family. So it’s also ironic that a reliance on family and tradition may also one day be its downfall.

To understand this dichotomy, one must delve into the hall’s founding and the zeitgeist under which it was founded. In the mid-1920s, Lansing was home to a large population of Polish immigrants. There were so many that the area could support three different chapters of national Polish fraternal organizations, each with a different mission.

The Polish Falcons of America focused on the physical aspects of Polish life, from exercise and leisure activities to training troops for World Wars I and II. The Polish National Alliance focused on education and the preservation of the culture. The White Eagle Society began as a business organization.

The Polish Falcons broke ground on the building in early 1929 on the space they still occupy at the corner of Mt. Hope Road and Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. The basement had been dug and construction was underway when the stock market crashed later that year. The Falcons tapped the other two groups for support to continue the initiative, and a coalition was born. They pooled their resources, relying solely on volunteer labor.

The basement was completed and became a usable bar and hall. As the economy recovered, construction on the building as it now appears was completed in 1936. The original hand-made bar (which is never open to the public) still anchors the basement, and a portrait of Kazimierz Puaski, the Polish general who became a hero of the American Revolution, adorns the classic stage in the main hall.

For many decades the hall and its organizations had close ties to Poland and its people. “We did a lot for refugee services,” says Pat Schockley, a member of the Polish Federated Home’s board of directors. “If you were a refugee, you came here to find a job, to speak your own language and find people you could trust to baby-sit.”

New immigrants could get financial, legal, linguistic and social support through the hall.

The hall was the center of social life for the Polish community for many decades. “I remember walking in my very first time in 1971,” reminisced Pat Krawczynski, the home’s acting manager. “As soon as you opened the doors, you entered Poland. Everyone spoke Polish. The polka band was going. It was absolutely packed. It was so lively, you had to wiggle your way through because of all the people.”

When communism fell, the need for refugee support waned. The hall, says Shockley, “has outlived that part of its function.” The coalition has had to formulate a new mission. “We want to preserve the Polish presence in the state Capitol and promote the Polish values and the Polish culture,” Shockley says. “It now has evolved into a preservation of the Polish-American culture. Polka bands and beer and food, that is our culture.”

But as today’s families cut away the chaff to free up time for play dates, piano lessons and soccer practice, it is increasingly easier to eliminate the antiquated social functions that might be nostalgic for parents, but are a hard sell to younger, wired generations.

“I tell the young people, yes, right now your lives are full. But what’s going to happen when I can’t do it anymore? I’m hoping that my daughter will want to step in, and [realize] it means a lot,” says Krawczynski, choking up as she voices her concern.

The folks who run The Polish Federated Home believe it to be the last of the non-profit ethnic halls in the Lansing area. (Members of the Liederkranz Club, which has 130 members who celebrate their German roots, would beg to differ.)

“Up until the ‘90s, anyone running for office made a stop here to get the Polish vote,” notes Bill Gabel, a member of the home’s board of directors.

Membership is at about half of its peak, now lingering around 285 members. This makes it a lesser priority for politicians courting the vote.

The group has one simple goal: to see the hall make it to its 100-year anniversary, still 20 years away. The hall is funded through two annual public events: a food booth at the Great Lakes Folk Festival and Pulaski Days at the hall. Volunteers make thousands of pierogies and Polish sausages, not only to make money but to also spread the culture.

“It’s becoming harder and harder, because we don’t have the membership we used to have,” Krawczynski says. “You’re looking at what’s keeping this hall going,” she adds, indicating Shockley, Gabel, board member Val Tarka and herself. “If just one of us dies, we could tumble very easily.”

It’s through the tenacity of this core group that the hall has survived the mounting rules, regulations and taxes imposed on nonprofit organizations. One of those regulations requires that as a nonprofit, the organizations must be open to anyone, not just those of Polish descent. Perhaps the board might want to revisit their mission, capitalize on the matchmaking power of Polish sausage, and host some speed-dating polka-dancing nights. Here’s one Irish girl who is willing to explore some Polish roots.