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A Piece of Poland

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A Piece of Poland

 

Benjamin Laroux achieved his dream of living in an authentic Polish house in the Catskills the hard way: by bringing it lock, stock, and barrel from Europe    

 

by Anitra Brown Photographs by Bart Sadowski

 

 

Most ¨¦migr¨¦s miss their homeland, but few have gone to the lengths taken by Benjamin Laroux, a 61-year-old native of Krakow, Poland, who moved to the states in 1968. His new country house, wedged between three mountains in Greene County, is a perfect example of traditional Polish rural architecture. It was designed and built in Poland, then shipped to the Hudson Valley in four containers weighing 24 tons each.

 

Set on 20 acres that Laroux bought in 1972, the three-story white stucco house appears rather fanciful, its steep rooflines topped by spiked copper finials (called florki). But it is also a profoundly practical structure. Snow slips off the sharply pitched roof, which was designed for harsh winters. And the house can withstand the 100-mile-per-hour winds that sometimes buffet Zakopane, the ski resort town near the Slovakian border where all the houses look like this ¡ª and where this one was constructed.

 

¡°It will be here forever, for sure,¡± says the handsome, silver-haired Laroux, settling into a leather chair that has carved oak horseheads for arms. His living room is an airy, resonant atrium. Sunshine pours in through mahogany-framed windows that offer a magnificent view of the Catskills.

 

A house that will last forever might sound like an idle boast. But Laroux was an industrial engineer who worked all over the world in the ¡¯60s and ¡¯70s, installing large-scale projects like turbine systems for refineries. He knows what it took to put this building in place ¡ª and what it would take to make it disappear. ¡°This is not a house that can be so easily demolished,¡± he muses as he considers the massive granite front porch, the stone and hardwood floors, the 40-foot yellow pine beams, the solid carved doors, and the hand-forged iron balconies inside and out. He nods his head, as though in sympathy for the crew who might be unlucky enough to have to knock it down in years to come.

 

These days, Laroux manufactures medical equipment in Elmwood Park, New Jersey, but spends most of his time here, working from a home office. He built the house for himself and his wife, Juliette, but also to entertain the surprisingly large Polish community that lives near them in the mountains. He estimates that there are about 150 Polish people in the area, most of whom attend the couple¡¯s annual New Year¡¯s Eve party as well as parties and picnics throughout the year.

 

Many of his compatriots settled in the area for the same reason he did ¡ª the Carpathian Mountains cut a wide swath across Poland, and the Catskills offer a similar feeling. And now, with his little piece of home ¡ª including the great oak credenzas, the pastel Oriental-style wool rugs, the oil painting of a horse in the snowy woods ¡ª Laroux¡¯s illusion is complete. ¡°Each time we have a get-together, we feel like we¡¯re still back in Poland,¡± he says with a smile.

 

The layout of the family¡¯s new home makes entertaining easy. The large living room is dominated by a lavastone fireplace that rises to the second floor, where plants spill down from the balcony. The pine beams are carved with floral and geometric motifs, and an enormous carved eagle, wings outstretched, sits on one of the crossbeams. ¡°I wanted to show that craftsmen of Poland can produce a very nice product,¡± says Laroux. On the other side of the fireplace is the large bar, which leads to the even more enormous granite patio, where carved wooden bears ¡ª from Poland, of course ¡ª oversee the summer proceedings. The kitchen cabinets are one of the few things made here (by Polish cabinetmakers in Saugerties).

 

Grey lavastone floors have a cool look, but they¡¯re kept toasty warm with radiant heating. Laroux chose hardwood floors for the stairway and second floor, where the gallery opens onto three large bedrooms, each with its own bathroom. Another doorway leads to the attic, which Laroux considers a ¡°secret kingdom¡± for children. An elevator descends to the basement, a male-only domain equipped with a pool table and yet another big fireplace. ¡°We invite only the women who wear high heels and short skirts,¡± he jokes (maybe).

 

Laroux got the idea for bringing a real Polish home to the Hudson Valley when he was visiting his beloved Zakopane. ¡°I saw the heavy-beam construction there, and I thought, it¡¯s functional, is beautiful, is unique¡­ that would be the perfect house for the property I have here!¡± He knew it would it be complicated to coordinate, and had no idea what it would cost. But his background as an industrial engineer gave him the daring to dream of such an undertaking, and the systematic mind to figure out how it could be done.

 

In 2001, he hired an architect in Zakopane to design a test structure ¡ª an open ¡°shed¡± made from heavy beams that was large enough to shelter three cars. The plan was to bring the materials to the U.S. and construct the carport adjacent to the house that already stood on the property (now the guest house). By doing so, Laroux would learn how to move building materials through U.S. and Polish customs, and get an idea of transportation costs.

 

What he learned was encouraging. He saved the 22 percent Polish tax because he was exporting, and sales tax in the U.S. because Poland has most-favored-nation status. The raw materials were much cheaper in Poland, as was the labor ¡ª the skilled builders who prepared the materials earn about $200 a month. Before long, Laroux had a massive wooden carport with copper florki on his Hunter property at half the cost of building it from scratch in the U.S. He knew his plan could work.

 

    After researching the cost of shipping four containers, Laroux realized that he might as well buy everything for his new house in Poland ¡ª the granite for the front porch and patio, the bathroom fixtures, even the furnishings, including the oak table and buffet for big dinner parties, the ornate silver soup tureen, the traditional woolen wall hangings. Laroux even persuaded the company that produced the street lamps for Zakopane to make some for his long driveway. ¡°I got tired of going all the time to Zakopane, and decided to bring it here,¡± he says.

 

Back in the Catskills, the next step was to build a ¡°garage¡± with sliding doors that would be large enough to receive the contents of the containers from Poland. This building, which now houses a sunny home office, came off without a hitch in 2002. Soon after, Laroux received his huge shipment ¡ª  and ran into his first serious obstacle. The five craftsmen who built the frame for the house and who knew how it fit together couldn¡¯t get permission to come to the United States. Laroux pleaded with American authorities, but to no avail. Despairing as the months passed, he asked local construction experts to take a look at his 96-ton puzzle. ¡°They said I was crazy,¡± he recalls. ¡°They wouldn¡¯t touch it.¡±

 

Finally, he hired an American lawyer who managed to persuade the consul in Krakow that this was a legitimate construction job that could only be tackled by Polish craftsmen. A year and a half after he started the process, Laroux got permission for two workmen (instead of the five he¡¯d planned on) to come to America. They finally arrived in 2004, and got a rude shock of their own. ¡°They thought they would be directing a whole crew. I said, ¡®No, you are the crew,¡¯ ¡± says Laroux, who hired one extra man and pitched in himself. ¡°It was just three guys and myself, working 10 hours a day for eight months.¡±  The workers took time to go to Manhattan once, but found it overwhelming. ¡°They had never been on a plane before,¡± he explains. ¡°That was the big adventure for them.¡±

 

When all was said and done, Laroux had built and furnished his indestructible dream house for $440,000. ¡°It was not that expensive, for all the materials and work,¡± he says. But he doubts anyone could duplicate what he has done. ¡°If you don¡¯t have an engineering background, it would be very difficult,¡± he declares. ¡°If you are not a construction engineer, don¡¯t even attempt.¡± ¡ö

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