With the current uncertainties, Marta Wojcik, Executive Director of Springfield’s Westcott House is concerned for the future of all cultural sites across the globe, not only the historic Frank Lloyd Wright building in her charge.
Wojcik, 43, is no stranger to hard times, having spent her early childhood growing up in Communist Poland. She knows how life and circumstances can turn on a dime, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. She describes the fall of Communism when she was 10 years old, living in Krakow, as a huge transformation – one that slowly changed her day-to-day life, and increasingly offered her more freedom as she became a teenager and ventured out into the world.
Wojcik had always had a deep love of art and chose to apply to a high school in the city’s center to pursue her education. She enjoyed the independence of taking the bus to school and loved walking through Krakow admiring the buildings and statues. She hung out at cafes with her friends after class. It was a happy life, and she felt lucky to be where she was.
“I just developed such a strong bond with Krakow as a city, and I think that’s really impacted my way of thinking about places we live, and really paying a lot of attention to drawing my energy from the place I live in,” says Wojcik.
Still, Wojcik says, in 1990’s Poland, economic conditions were slow to change, and her parents longed for more opportunity. Wojcik’s grandfather was born in the United States to Polish parents before returning to Poland as an infant, and he retained his eligibility for U.S. citizenship. Her father was also automatically eligible for U.S. citizenship, as the oldest son. He decided to take advantage of this opportunity and start a new life in a faraway land. Wojcik’s mother joined him, and her siblings and their families followed soon after. Because she was in the midst of completing her degree in Art History, Wojcik stayed behind.
“The whole idea of living in a place with so much history and so much art was important,” says Wojcik.
She visited her family in Illinois when she was able and took great interest in the arts and architecture offered by the city and suburbs of Chicago. She used the opportunity for research, writing her master’s degree dissertation on the skyscrapers of her family’s new American home. Her colleagues back in Krakow were impressed. She completed her master’s degree in 2002 and moved to the U.S. for what was supposed to be just a couple of years.
“I would come here from time to time in the summer, and I got really familiar with Chicago and the architecture – and naturally, Frank Lloyd Wright,” says Wojcik. “After I graduated, I was curious, and I wanted to try it, and to be with my family too. As much as I didn’t want to admit it for most of my college years, I did miss them!” she admits.
Wojcik had studied Wright’s work in college. She says that much of her education focused on European content, but when the topic shifted to 20th century American artistry, Wright was heavily in focus. She actually considered writing her dissertation on his work but was overwhelmed by the absolute glut of information that was available to sift through and decided to switch paths.
Wojcik worked odd jobs while trying to find her niche in the Chicago arts community. Her parents had been concerned from the beginning with her choice of degree and its possibilities for real-world application. She also struggled with some personal doubt surrounding her status as not only a new immigrant to this country but also as a recent grad trying to get her foot in the door. Her accent was thick. She was young and inexperienced. But, she was determined.
She began networking with fervor, sending emails to everyone she could, detailing her experience and interests as far as the specifics of the field. She asked, boldly but politely, for introductions to additional contacts that might benefit her in her search for a career fit. She started work as a tour guide.
“Despite all my doubts and fears I tried to get connected with the community in terms of architecture and art history. It led from one internship to another – going through training as a guide at the Chicago Architecture Foundation and then the Frank Lloyd Wright House. These were all such amazing experiences, because it gave me faith that I can make connections and learn to make my way in my field,” says Wojcik.
By 2005, her long list of contacts and associations paid off in the form of an amazing opportunity. She was referred to interview for a position in Springfield at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Wescott House, which was newly renovated and beginning to open to the public. She had previously interned for the current director, and he was familiar with her dedication to her work, as well as her great enthusiasm for Wright.
It was also at this time that Wojcik met her future husband Kevin Rose, a historian for the Turner Foundation who she became acquainted with through the interview process. Rose, like Wojcik, was a huge proponent of historic preservation. He had recently purchased a historic home in Springfield in need of renovation. The two live there today with their young children, ages 5 and 3.
“It really came together in such a way that it made Springfield my home,” says Wojcik. “I work in a prairie-style home, and I go home to the total opposite, which is a Victorian Style house in South Fountain because that’s where we live,” laughs Wojcik. “My husband bought it before I had a chance to make a decision, and there are times when I think, ‘What were you thinking?'. It’s a labor of love, though, and well worth it. It’s amazing to see how the neighborhood has transformed through the last 20 years. It really is.”
Wojcik has a great understanding of the ideologies behind the rapid development she sees in the United States, but she comes from a different background with an opposing state of mind. She says she experienced culture shock when she arrived in the U.S., largely because of the lack of value placed in older buildings.
“I felt like I came from an environment where there was no question of if a building of historic merit could be torn down. My culture felt threatened by Communism. They wanted to preserve their buildings and heritage. When I came here, it’s like so many amazing buildings were threatened or demolished,” says Wojcik.
In Poland, she says, citizens and lawmakers realized that investments in their longstanding relics of the past were also investments in the country’s future – not only preserving history but also encouraging tourism. She sees a similar mindset at work in Springfield and is proud to be living and working in a community committed to bettering its prospects by holding onto the past while looking ahead.
“In Springfield you can see it. That’s why I’m excited to be a part of it in this time and age,” she says. “So many people come together and push for it. While many buildings have been lost, we have some splendid buildings. There is just this sense that through beautiful buildings, we are more viable as a community for redevelopment. It’s just something that sets us apart.”
In addition to its architectural draw, Wojcik values the personal side of her Springfield community.
“When I came to the United States, I was just very skeptical I could ever live in a foreign country. Just the level of comfort I had, I never thought I had hope to get there. Now, after so many years I just feel so deeply connected to this community,” says Wojcik. “Our children were born in Springfield Regional, and it’s just like – all those things matter. In our jobs, I feel like we get so much encouragement and appreciation. Our leaders are willing to listen. It’s amazing.”
As for her work at the Westcott House, she is trying to look on the bright side. This year marks 15 years of the Wescott House being open to the public, even though they haven’t been open for visits since March because COVID-19.
In addition to spending her days applying for grants and trying to drum up funding to stay afloat, Wojcik has been instituting creative ways of bringing glimpses of Westcott to an expanded online community.
“One of the things that gave me a lot of hope was connecting and reconnecting with other Frank Lloyd Wright sites. We are part of Wright Virtual Visits. It’s mostly a social media campaign,” says Wojcik.
“Every Thursday at 1 p.m., I post what another site sends me, and they post my video – specifically made for them. It’s about a three to five-minute-long highlight of the house,” she explains. “We’ve been just amazed because sources from CNN to Martha Stewart to Smithsonian Magazine that have covered this program, which is of course a wonderful thing for us. We repost them on our Vimeo channel for easy access.”
Wojcik is also grateful that Wescott’s online store opened prior to the pandemic. She has been utilizing it not only for income from online sales but also to reach out to factions of her own community that have been hard hit.
Wojcik orchestrated an Easter program where patrons could purchase stuffed bunnies from the online store and have them donated to children in need. The store also hosts a children’s art contest promoting sales of a coloring book featuring the historic houses of Springfield. Proceeds from the book’s sales go to Second Harvest Food Bank.
“We’re thinking about how to approach things differently and help each other out. These organizations are in the most urgent need,” says Wojcik. “I worry about businesses in town that just recently opened. It’s one thing to survive two months but it’s another to keep going.
“Even when we get approval to reopen, there are so many questions about how confident people will be to travel and visit sites like ours,” she continues. “Our house runs because we have close to 70 people volunteering here. People come from all over, and it’s just such a risk to expose them. I miss them. Thank goodness for social media to keep us connected, as ambivalent as I am about it.”
June 8 was Frank Lloyd Wright’s birthday.
“Typically, this time of year we have a big Frank Lloyd Wright birthday party,” says Wojcik, wistfully. “We were planning on this big gala in October, and it was supposed to be at capacity with over 300 people. We were really excited about it, but we do need to think about innovative ways to do this. As of now, what we’ve been trying to do is just really be present in the virtual world.”