Kraków – town houses


   The formation of the medieval town brought the foundation under the Magdeburg Law in 1257. It did not mark the beginning of Kraków, which from the 9th to the 10th centuries was a tribal center, but it started a regular network of streets with a central market square and a division of buildings into precisely matched building plots. The most representative buildings were created by the four frontages of the market, where first settlers and their families lived, where the most influential and richest burghers were located.
   The first changes in the layout of the medieval Kraków houses brought the beginning of the fourteenth century, when due to the inconvenience of moving to the rear of the parcels, began to massively change the layout of the large halls in the ground floors of buildings. The economic development of the city in the second half of the 14th century, associated with favorable economic and political conditions in the time of the peaceful rule of king Casimir the Great, caused an even greater revival of the construction movement. Then the codification of the customary building regulations took place (among others in the guild resolution of 1367 the rules for the construction of the border walls were established), which contributed to regulating the process of erecting bourgeois buildings and establishing a standard tenement house, in which the form resulted from its function.
   Changes in the medieval layout and appearance of tenement houses began in the third quarter of the 16th century. Then renaissance decorations appeared, the first floor’s halls began to be transformed into living quarters, the warehouses and storehouses in the attics disappeared, and the tenement houses began to be divided into autonomous parts used by various families. Due to fire regulations gable roofs associated with the Middle Ages have disappeared and so-called butterfly roof began to be used.


   Market town buildings to a large extent represented all of the medieval Kraków houses. Their construction, interior layout and the method of shaping the form can be referred to the buildings at other streets. The differences were expressed only by the magnificence (number of storeys), the quality of the building material (including the proportion of stone and wood) and the ornamentation. After the location of the city, the Kraków market was divided into 30 large, mostly oblong plots with dimensions of approximately 42×21 meters (called curia), with shorter sides towards the square. On these plots, after their division into slightly smaller half-curias, 68 houses were built in the first phase, wchich length of the façades facing the market was on average around 10 meters. Initially, they did not have basements and had a maximum height of two above-ground storeys. Perhaps some had an additional third floor with a wooden or half-timbered structure. Their ground floor was filled with a large, single-space hall in which there was a craft workshop, a warehouse of goods, as well as a housing and commercial space warmed by fire from an open hearth with an eaves. The hall was usually illuminated with two small windows located on both sides, mostly symmetrically placed entrance portal. There was also an entrance in the back wall from the side of the courtyard, usually placed next to one of the neighboring walls. Such location of the main entrance enabled the location of the hearth next to one of the side walls of the building. The width of the entrances was not too big, it was only about 90-120 cm. The 13th-century buildings floors are much less well-known because of later transformations. It were accessible via wooden, often external, rear stairs. Probably there were living spaces in them, such as bedrooms, separated by wooden partition walls.

   In the second half of the 13th century, Kraków’s houses were built of broken limestone, occasionally supplemented in architectural details by bricks. These were harsh and monumental buildings, almost devoid of decorations. The ground floor rooms were covered with beam ceilings based on offsets. Numerous niches and recesses serving as storage compartments, shelves and cabinets were placed in the walls. The walls themselves were usually plastered and whitewashed. The first buildings in Kraków were covered with gable roofs.
   On the back of the plot there was a wooden auxiliary building, an economic one, probably mainly one-storey. To allow for a better access to it, sometimes between 2.6-3.8 meter wide passages were left between the buildings. Therefore, at the end of the 13th century, the Kraków development was not yet compact. The problem of access to the back of the plot was not present in the corner buildings, where the outbuilding could be accessed through a gate in the wall or a fence separating the courtyard. Sometimes in the back of the plot instead of auxiliary wooden buildings, the stone one, mostly three-story buildings were erected on plans similar to a square and form similar to a residential tower. They combined residential, representative and defense functions.
   The first Kraków houses belonged to the type of building that appeared throughout the north-European cultural area at the turn of the 13th and 14th centuries, the only difference being that the Kraków houses (similarly to the Silesian ones) usually had a residential floor, not always present in the north area. A characteristic feature of the tenement houses of the northern region, apart from the large entrance hall, were floors used for warehouses. Thus, in the Kraków houses, the influence of Mediterranean architecture, spreading according to the Tuscan-Lombardy and French patterns to southern Germany, can be seen.

   The second stage of the development of medieval tenements in Kraków began in the first half of the 14th century. At that time, the original single-space, large, situated in the ground floor halls, were divided into smaller rooms. When the house stood in a tight frontage without the possibility of getting from the outside to the back of the plot, the spacious hall was divided longitudinally into two rooms (hall and shop). They were of different width due to the entrance to the building located on the central axis of the facade. When the original entrance to the tenement was bricked up, it was possible to divide the hall into rooms of equal size. The third, the rarest version of the division of the hall was possible in the houses with the possibility of getting to the back of the plot by a side passage. In this case,, the hall was divided by a transverse wall, parallel to the facade of the building.
   The third stage of transformation of Kraków’s burgher buildings began in the mid-fourteenth century. It was connected with the enlargement of Kraków’s houses by adding to them the back bays, adding floors and building on parcels already brick auxiliary, rear buildings. As a result, a late-medieval house with gothic decorations developed. At that time, the original entry halls began to decrease into the ground level, raised by 2-3 meters and act as the basement of the front bay (the level of the ground was rising quickly due to the laying of successive layers of pavement or wooden logs, or dumping waste). The gothic hall filled the second floor (the contemporary ground floor), and the cellars (ie the former 13th century ground floor) began to be covered with barrel vaults. The formation of the level of these vaults was influenced by the so-called water law, prohibiting the discharge of rainwater to the area of ​​the neighboring plot. People therefore tried to raise the level of the ground floor of the house, to drain the water in a gutter to the street. The main feature of the new rear bays was their division into a spacious room and a passageway to the coutryard. This rule could be broken in corner houses, where there was no need to create additional passes and the back route was divided into two equal rooms.

   The walls of the floors usually repeated the layout of the rooms from the ground floor. Most of the market square buildings from the second half of the 14th and 15th centuries were already two-storey and covered with high gable roofs. The gables were decorated with blendes, pinnacles or decorative battlements. There were windows illuminating the attic and cranes with jibs allowing to draw goods into warehouses. Rear buildings were connected with main tenements with communication porches, hung on the boundary walls. In the third phase, some of the buildings received a stoops, that is a narrow cellar by the facade of buildings, elevated above the level of the terrain with terraces accessible by stairs. They did not create a communication route, and were erected separately for each building, and had separate widths and heights. They made possible to increase the usable space of the building, cover the entrance and isolate the ground floor from traffic. There were also ramps for unloading goods from wagons, some of which (smaller ones) could be carried directly to the cellars. The terraces of the stoops were sheltered with wooden roofs, which began to be removed in the 16th century due to the fire hazard.

   In the fifteenth century, part of the market square tenement houses reached the form of magnificent palaces. They were created by merging and expanding two neighboring buildings, most often located in corner plots. The first floors of these buildings were filled with representative rooms called upper halls or palases with a very rich sculptural decoration and cross-ribbed vaults.

Current state

    Until now, none of the original, gothic medieval market houses have survived. In the others, sometimes only some of the original elements are visible, and the medieval walls are hidden under early modern elevations. The exception is the house at today’s św Krzyża 23 Street, which dates from the fourteenth century and is the oldest in Kraków preserved in such a good condition residential building. Originally it was the seat of guards who watched at the neighboring city walls. Later it was inhabited by Benedictine monks and then became the seat of the Order of the Holy Ghost. Now it is a Clergy house.

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Komorowski W., Kamienice i pałace rynku krakowskiego w średniowieczu, “Rocznik krakowski”, tom 68, 2002.
Łukacz M., Średniowieczne domy lokacyjnego Krakowa, “Czasopismo techniczne”, zeszyt 23, 2011.
Marek M., Cracovia 3d, Kraków 2011.