PHILADELPHIA — If the hip-hop Broadway smash “Hamilton” can reignite interest in the first U.S. treasury secretary, what will it take to drum up interest in another forgotten hero from America’s fight for independence?
That question has stumped National Park Service employees who oversee the Thaddeus Kosciuszko National Memorial. It’s the smallest and one of the least-visited sites in the system, despite being near the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.
The few who do come are usually tourists with Polish heritage or history buffs familiar with Kosciuszko’s pivotal role in the American Revolution.
As people descend on the city for July Fourth, here’s a brief look at a man who Thomas Jefferson called “as pure a son of liberty as I have ever known.”
Q: Who was Thaddeus Kosciuszko?
A military engineer from Poland, Kosciuszko came to Philadelphia in August 1776 to offer his services in the fight against the British. His defenses helped the Continental Army win the critical Battle of Saratoga in New York, and he later worked on fortifications that secured key access to the Hudson River at West Point, now the site of the U.S. Military Academy. He also fought in the Carolinas.
After the war, Kosciuszko returned to Poland and, in 1794, led a rebellion against Russian occupation. He became a hero to his countrymen despite Russia’s victory and his ensuing exile.
Q: Why is the memorial in Philadelphia?
Kosciuszko returned to Philadelphia while in exile. From November 1797 to May 1798, he stayed at a boarding house that now serves as the national memorial.
While here, Kosciuszko rarely left his bedroom because of a severe leg injury suffered during the fighting in Poland. But he kept busy playing chess, painting and entertaining a steady stream of dignitaries and visitors, including Jefferson.
Kosciuszko soon went back to Europe with the ultimate goal of helping Poland regain its independence. It didn’t happen in his lifetime, and he died in Switzerland in 1817.
To be sure, Philadelphia is hardly alone in its Kosciuszko tribute. A statue stands across from the White House in Lafayette Square, and the Kosciuszko Bridge connects Brooklyn and Queens in New York. Oprah Winfrey was born in Kosciusko, Mississippi, and Australia’s highest peak is Mount Kosciuszko.
Q: What will I see?
Nearly two centuries after Kosciuszko lived at the boarding house, the building was purchased by Philadelphia philanthropist Edward Piszek, the son of Polish immigrants and co-founder of the Mrs. Paul’s frozen fish empire.
Piszek gave the three-story brick row house to the park service, and then bought and donated the home next door to add exhibit space. The memorial opened in 1976 and occupies just 0.2 acres in the historic Society Hill neighborhood, making it the smallest site in the park service’s portfolio.
The ground-floor displays tell the story of Kosciuszko’s life. Upstairs, his bedroom has been re-created with period furniture and artifacts based on an inventory found in Jefferson’s personal papers. There’s also a small theater with a six-minute film. All exhibits offer English and Polish translations.
The bedroom includes replica papers from an abolition society because of his vehement opposition to slavery.
Q: When can I visit?
It’s open only on weekends for seven months a year. A park service survey from 2015 showed the memorial hed 1,261 visitors, compared with 4.3 million tourists just a few blocks away at Independence National Historical Park, which includes the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall.
But while the modest Philadelphia site lacks grandeur, it rewards guests with a compelling story, said park ranger Adam Duncan.
“We hope that they walk away with a sense of who Kosciuszko was and what he did for the United States, and his dedication to liberty — liberty for all.”
If you go
THADDEUS KOSCIUSZKO NATIONAL MEMORIAL: Third and Pine Streets, Philadelphia. Open April-October, Saturday-Sunday, noon-4 p.m. Free.