(Photo credit: Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial, courtesy Kansas Sebastian, Flickr Creative Commons)
If you find yourself visiting the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial in Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighborhood, you’re likely either a hard-core Revolutionary War buff, a National Park Service completist, a Polish tourist or a Polish-American. And unless you’ve brought a friend you’ll probably be the only visitor there. The lone park ranger on duty will be happy to talk with you because visitors are so rare and she’ll be glad of the company.
Kosciuszko is one of these figures from American history that Americans once celebrated but have now largely forgotten about. An architect and engineer by trade, he was also a young romantic who was so moved by news of the American Revolution that he crossed the Atlantic in 1776 to join in the fight. As an officer in the Continental Army for the next seven years, he ranged across the eastern part of that continent, becoming expert at building defenses sturdy enough to repel British military advances. Kosciuszko seemed to have a knack for building strong fortifications that made the best use of surrounding topography. When his commanders ignored his advice, as at Fort Ticonderoga, Continental Army defenses tended to fall. When they paid attention to him, as General Horatio Gates did at Bemis Heights during the crucial second battle of Saratoga, the result was generally a win for the Americans. Kosciuszko’s defenses at West Point, on the Hudson River, were so effective that the British never even attempted to take the position by force. He rounded out his war as a very effective combat engineer for the Americans in the 1780-83 Southern campaign.
Philadelphia’s memorial to Kosciuszko is a building that once served as a temporary lodging to the man, who spent six difficult months here when he returned to America in the late 1790s. It stands at 3rd and Pine Streets, opposite St. Peter’s Church—itself a historic site whose doors saw more than a few of the founding fathers pass through to worship there. This a quiet and lovely residential section of the city, composed of mostly original but carefully tended 18th century homes, some of which are historically significant in themselves. It’s only a little more than half a mile away from the hustle and bustle of Independence Hall, but that seems far enough off the beaten track to discourage casual tourists, very few of whom wander down that way. (Parking is also an issue, as the site has no parking facilities of its own.) That leaves the handful of motivated visitors who make a special trip to see this site, and they are the folks who generally fall into one of the categories listed above.
Why do these folks come? Visitors from Poland, and some ardent Polish-Americans, want to see the only known American home of their national hero. As an engineer with no family connections in America Kosciuszko moved from fort to fort to camp without ever settling down. Park rangers learn how to greet these folks in Polish as well as the correct way to pronounce the man’s name (roughly speaking, it’s “Kos-CHOO-sko”). As for the Revolutionary War buffs, many are fascinated by the Polish Patriot who helped win the war not with guns but with feats of military engineering. They also want to glean some extra insight into the whole conflict, even though Kosciuszko’s stay here occurred almost 15 years after it ended. And then there are the completists: couples (usually it’s couples) who are trying to visit all the 401 National Park Service units—or some subset thereof—and can’t resist making the trek to see what is officially styled the smallest park service unit in the country.
Yes, Kosciuszko National Memorial—or “K House,” as park rangers refer to it—is a record holder of sorts. If Yellowstone National Park is the nation’s oldest (established in 1872) and Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve is the largest, then Kosciuszko is the smallest. It’s basically a single 18th century dwelling whose footprint covers 0.02 acres, about 80 square meters. Or to put it another way: You could fit 660 million Kosciuszko Houses into Wrangell-St. Elias. This is about as far removed from the big western natural parks as it’s possible to get. You can see the whole thing in about 10 minutes.
It might be the smallest park service unit on paper, but functionally the site is not autonomous. It’s administratively part of nearby Independence National Historical Park, staffed by rangers from that park who walk the thousand yards or so from Independence Hall to take up a duty station there. The site gets away with the smallest-unit boast because it wasn’t part of the original 1948 Act of Congress creating Independence park. Instead the property was acquired in the early 1970s by a Polish-American who then donated it to the park service. (Edgar Allen Poe National Historic Site, situated north of Philly’s downtown area, has a similar status.)
The part this building plays in Kosciuszko’s life harks back to the Pole’s return to the United States in 1797. At this point he was still a household name in the young country. By the end of the war against Britain in 1783, Kosciuszko had been promoted to Brigadier-general and received honors from Congress and his commander-in-chief, George Washington. But he’d then decided to return to Poland and became involved in trying to secure his homeland’s independence from foreign interference. That attempt ultimately failed, as did a later uprising against Russian and Prussian control that Kosciuszko personally led.
News of Kosciuszko’s exploits filtered back to the United States, increasing the popular acclaim he was held in. So when he was banished from Poland and returned to America in 1797, he received something of a hero’s welcome in Philadelphia, which was then the U.S. capital. He was, however, partly incapacitated from wounds received during the Polish Uprising. He was also short of money (he was at the time trying to secure the back pay Congress owed him) so he was looking for a small, cheap residence in the city. He found such a place at 3rd and Pine streets, which at the time was a boarding house belonging to Mrs. Ann Relf. He stayed there from November 1797 till May 1798, recuperating while in temporary exile. Thanks to his reputation, Kosciuszko received a steady stream of old friends and visitors, including Thomas Jefferson, at the house.
The Kosciuszko House today functions as a museum, celebrating the story of the man who once stayed there for a few months. The ground floor includes a variety of interactive interpretive resources, thanks to a recent renovation of the interior. Upstairs includes a recreation of Kosciuszko’s bedroom/study. There’s a lot packed into the museum’s 0.02 acres. There’s something for the Revolutionary War buffs and the Polish visitors—including an interpretive video that, while a bit dated, can be played in Polish as well as English. There’s even a little something extra for the completists: a display map that shows the location of the many sites and features around the world named after Kosciuszko—from Kosciuszko, Mississippi to Mount Kosciuszko in Australia (celebrated in song by the anti-establishment Aussie band Midnight Oil).
Kosciuszko only stayed at this boarding house for about six months before making his way back to Europe in 1798. He continued to agitate for Polish freedom, and he never returned to the United States. His legacy in America was secured, however. His name may not be as well known here as it is in Poland, but among those who know a bit about the Revolutionary War he’s very highly regarded. Not bad for a man who was never an aristocrat but was a brilliant engineer.
Frequently Asked Questions. National Park Service. Available at http://www.nps.gov/faqs.htm
Robert Smith (2008). A Brief History: The Smallest National Park Site. All Things Considered. National Public Radio. Available at http://www.npr.org/2008/06/30/92035186/a-brief-history-the-smallest-national-park-site