A Polish flat (sometimes referred to as the German duplex) is a two-family home with separate entrances, and with the units stacked on top of one another instead of side-by-side. Most homes of this type were constructed in the early 20th century.
Constructing the units in two stages balanced affordability and quality. The new Polish immigrants, as soon as they could afford to do so, would purchase a small one-story or story-and-a-half cottage, or sometimes build one on a vacant lot with minimum cost, with modest Victorian Gothic or Queen Anne façade. When they saved again, they would then raise the frame up on jacks creating a partially sunken basement, excavate the area underneath, pour concrete floor, build foundation walls with masonry (usually concrete blocks), then set the old frame back down over the new apartment. While highly unorthodox, it was an ingenious technique of building new accommodations without disrupting family life, in line with their growing wealth.
This arrangement enabled a family of limited means to end up with both a home and a modestly priced rental apartment unit. Most of the Polish flats that survive to this day are found in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since Polish American immigrants prized land ownership in their own culture, this solution which was prominent in the areas they settled in came to be associated with them.
Polish flats were "specifically designed both to accommodate and to accelerate the economic improvement of the family... Polish flats were human values reflected in architecture and testified to the hard work, practicality, and optimism of their inhabitants," wrote former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist in his book, The Wealth of Cities.
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