Marta Wojcik celebrates 15 years: Westcott House leader marked by degree of determination

This weekend, Marta Wojcik celebrates 15 years at the Westcott House Foundation, the past 10 of them as the Frank Lloyd Wright house’s executive director. On a recent day with her husband, Kevin Rose, passing in and out of the Westcotts’ front room with their two small children, Wojcik talked about how luck, necessity and an impractical love of architecture continue to reshape her life.

Youthful intoxication

When she was in middle school in Poland, Marta Wojcik’s parents began to see a better future for their children in their family’s past.

Although Marta’s grandfather Vladislaw Wojcik lived in the Polish countryside, he was born in 1939 in Massachusetts during one his adventuresome mother’s transcontinental migrations.

U.S. immigration law of that time granted Vladislaw’s son and Marta’s father, Eugeniusz, a simple path to American citizenship. And in the 1990s, he and wife, Zofia, began to think that path might provide better opportunities for Piotr, their computer programmer son.

That began a process in which the couple, Piotr and his family and daughter Asia and her family ultimately immigrated to Chicago, home to a huge Polish community.

And that left just one stubborn holdout behind.

Marta was not just satisfied, she recalls, but “gung-ho” to remain a solid Polish citizen.

Her enthusiasm due to an intoxication not by way of Poland’s original bottled water (vodka), but something many parents of college-age children consider even more pernicious: a love of art history.

The Wojciks had pleaded with Marta to use her considerable intelligence to become a lawyer or doctor. (Even a degree pottery might have offered the prospect of a marketable skill.)

But by then, the entranced young woman was leaving her drab Communist-era flat daily for the bus ride to downtown Krakow, where she reveled in the city’s rich culture and architecture.

For three years she worked fervently on a master’s degree from Jagiellonian University that would culminate in the thesis: “Historic Preservation in the United States of America in the Context of the Chicago School of Architecture.”

“Then I graduated,” she said, and reality fell like an iron curtain.

“Complete lost,” anxious about finding any work “remotely related to my degree” and “really missing my family,” she decided to move to Chicago in 2002.

But packed in her baggage was one thing her master’s work taught her: the amount of work required to achieve any degree of success.

Death by H.R.

For a student of architecture who has seen it only in pictures, the Chicago skyline “is a revelation,” Marta said. “I just never will forget the impact it had on me.”

The skyscrapers would serve in the coming years as huge carrots that urged her on. But in addition to the carrots, she was motivated by sticks that seemed intent in beating the spirit out of her.

Chicago offers at least three, the first being daily commute from the suburbs, in this case the western ‘burb, Mount Prospect.

“I really became quite depressed” with the lengthy rides to reach the city’s cultural sites - trips much longer than the bus ride in Krakow,” Marta said.

Perhaps more difficult to endure was a series of jobs of the kind that are available in a large metro area to a mediocre speaker of English with no work experience.

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Nanny work didn’t please her, and bagging groceries only taught her that the customers at Jewel stores not only failed to speak English with the accent of her British instructor but spoke it faster than the groceries that constantly slid her way.

Still, there were valuable life lessons, among them that serving tables while having English as a second language was not quite as grim as enduring the company loyalty portions of job orientation at Wal-Mart.

Trying to get his daughter’s foot in the door, her father spotted the name of a Polish woman in a newspaper notice for the Art Institute of Chicago (AID). The effort landed Marta an opening in the Human Resources Department.

With no disrespect for those who work in H.R., she recalls that, while doing filing there, she heard the desperate voice of an art history major cry out, “Oh, Lord, I’m going to die here.”

Then, not a moment too soon, a new and coveted door opened down the hall.

Saved by a Ukrainian

The Art Institute of Chicago’s Department of Architecture and Design is world-renown.

And while many lessons have been learned there, the most important one Marta Wojcik wants to share with young people trying to pursue their passions, it’s this: “If you just ask, there are people there to help.”

Following a tip, she asked department head, John Zukowsky, then learned in a return email that the man with Ukrainian roots welcomed people from all over the world each summer as interns.

Soon Marta was working on his architectural history exhibit “1945: Creativity in Crisis.”

Inspired by her new foothold, she decided to up her English language skills and add to her professional knowledge by training to be a tour docent with the Chicago Architectural Association. It was a breath of fresh air of the kind experienced by winter visitors to the historic Russian gulag.

“Their volunteer training is set (on eight consecutive Saturdays) in January and February,” she said. “It was so cold, and they would take you outside and do the tours.”

She paid less onerous dues as a tour guide at the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio in nearby Oak Park, Ill.

“I was just so terrified at my ability to speak (English),” she said, that for her practice tour, she did what she had been told not to do: memorize her script rather than using it as a guide.

She nonetheless passed and marinated in Frank Lloyd Wright architecture in what she calls the “open museum” of his works in Oak Park.

The other Marta

She was invited to stay at the AIC after her internship to write essays for the catalog for “1945.”

But like so many, she then was shocked to learn that her boss was leaving in 2004 for a job Springfield, Ohio, where Wright’s once dilapidated Westcott House was undergoing a lengthy and costly restoration.

“Everybody was completely blindsided,” she said, “because he doesn’t really like Frank Lloyd Wright.”

A year later, she replied to what she considered a courtesy invitation from Zukowsky to apply for the curator’s position at Westcott.

“I didn’t know where Springfield, Ohio, was,” she said.

And given the vast interest in Wright and her own relatively slender experience, “I thought, on my God, I will never get it.”

But when she came for a visit, “people kind of adopted me” at a wine tasting, the architecture of City Building across the Esplanade from the Courtyard by Marriott charmed her, and, after enduring Chicagoland, the commuter seemed perfect.

“There is this sense of history and community” in Springfield, she said. “I was sold immediately.”

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That visit had just one fly in the ointment, which involved the only other architectural historian in what once was called City of Roses.

Before introducing Marta to the Turner Foundation’s Kevin Rose, Zukowsky said, “You’ll like her,” then added, “You’d better like her because you’re going to be working a lot together.”

In the small talk that followed the introductions, Rose mentioned that he had dated another woman named Marta, who had been from Spain.

It wasn’t like she thought he was collecting Martas; but it did strike her as rather an odd thing to say.

Lost in translation

When Marta arrived at the Westcott House in 2005, Zukowsky was on his way out the back door.

Having taken the Westcott job in anticipation of building a program, he found that the money that might have been the foundation for the future had largely been poured into the unstable foundation of the house itself.

Marta recalls feeling strange at the house’s grand opening to be one of two women on staff with noticeable European accents - the other being a German who had been AIC intern, Sonja Ostendorf-Rupp.

As the Westcott Board began a series of attempts to find a new leader, Marta got busy acclimating herself to a new job, with the help of Rose . (They had overcome the early awkward moment in a series of friendly telephone calls between Springfield and Chicago.)

But communication problems persisted.

Without being able to speak Polish, as she had with her family and a larger community in Chicago, Marta began overdosing on her second language.

“I got so exhausted of speaking English (all the time),” she said. The process of translating English into Polish in her brain was a “constant strain,” she said. More than one time “I told Kevin I can no longer speak English today.”

Although he did not learn Polish, he did have patience, which allowed their professional and personal worlds to grow closer, eventually leading to their marriage in 2009.

The year before would prove important, because the crash of 2008 was yet another blow to plans for the Westcott House and every other organization trying to grow. So, in 2010, when she became executive director and curator, “I was one of the last people standing” - she and director of operations, Tom Fyffe, who, like her, has shown staying power.

At home in the house

With a pandemic underway and Wescott House tour docents on indefinite hold, a now 43-year-old Wojcik was in an empty Westcott house with time on her hands.

But she had an iPhone and a tripod. And with leftover scraps of cardboard and dress-up gear stolen from her children, she fashioned a devil and an angel costume, made up a script and recorded a little ditty of a fundraiser.

“I wasn’t going to show it,” she said. “I didn’t want to make a fool of myself.”

Then her husband who had endured silence in the days when his wife could not speak another word of English, told her “You need to get out of your own head.”

“I think Kevin is so different from me and my family. My approach to things is a glass half-empty, and his is half-full. You need a partner to shake you up.”

And, she has discovered, a reason to be shaken.

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“I don’t know how it happened,” Wojcik said. But the once shy Polish girl who was self-conscious about her English decided that “ultimately, it’s not about myself. It’s about what’s pushing me to get out of my shell - the cause I believe in.”

“In moments of desperation, I do get a sense of having responsibility for this place. This is a place that deserves to be supported. I do want to leave the legacy of a place that can sustain itself.”

In the past 10 years, the woman with little administrative experience and an art history background has grown as an administrator in the same way the woman who has done no acting or film background reached for her iPhone and tripod.

“What I think I had and the board saw (in hiring me) was … the determination to do what was needed to push us along.”

For the time being, that will mean continuing to experiment with new programs; continuing to tap the creativity of people who have interpreted the architecture of the house through their own art; and continuing to somehow - and with limited resources — help the house fill its current dual roles as a tourist destination and a hub of community culture.

Wojcik’s degree of determination to do so seems to echo that of young woman who, as her family moved to the United States, stubbornly stayed in Poland to study art history.

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