Business: Polish Hall — more than a gathering place for more than a century

JENNETT MERIDEN RUSSELL PHOTO| Riverhead Polish Hall bartender Ed Jeneski, 85, and Polish Hall President Ziggy Wilinski, 64, remember the history of the local catering hall.

For more than a century, the Riverhead Polish Hall has been the community cornerstone of Riverhead’s Polish Town. The hall was built soon after Polish immigrants settled in Riverhead at the turn of the 20th century, according to Polish Hall president Ziggy Wilinski.

Having come from farming communities in Poland, the immigrants found they shared a love of the land as well as a past of religious persecution, which developed after Poland was divided among Russia, Prussia and Austria, he said.

Small clapboard houses began springing up, forming Polish Town, which now comprises an area of approximately 15 blocks of residential, commercial and industrial properties.

Mr. Wilinski explained that twenty men, mostly farmers, joined together and pledged themselves into a Polish fraternity, “Towarzystwo Polskie Rzymsko – Katolickie Bratnies Pomocy pod Opieka Sw. Izydora, Patrona Rolnikow,” the Polish Roman Catholic Society of Fraternal Assistance under the Patronage of St. Isidore, The Patron of Farmers.

“They built a church of wood with twin spires with their own hard-earned pennies, most only making $10 a month,” Mr. Wilinski noted. St. Isidore’s was the first Polish Roman Catholic church built on Long Island.

The parish became the spiritual heart of the little community, but parishioners still desired a place to celebrate weddings, anniversaries or just meet friends. They scraped together more of their pennies and built the Riverhead Polish Hall the same year, according to Mr. Wilinski.

“It was originally called the Riverhead Polish Independent Club and the hall was available only to members only,” he said. “Then in 1977 we opened our doors to the general public.”

First organized on April 13, 1903, and incorporated on October 21, 1907, the original small wooden hall thrived until 1928, when a fire claimed the building, according to Riverhead resident Ed Jeneski, who works as a bartender at the hall. Mr. Jeneski said that he does not know how the fire started, but pointed out that St. Isidore parishioners wasted no time in constructing a new hall across the street from where the demolished hall once sat.

“The new hall was up by the next year,” Mr. Jeneski said.

Serving family-style Polish-American food, the catering facility is staffed almost entirely by Polish-Americans. The hall is considered the social capital of Polish Town, according to Mr. Wilinski.

“I even got married here in 1972,” said the father of two. “We had, if I’m not mistaken, 350 people. It was wall-to-wall chairs and when the band started we had to take some tables out so people could dance. It was a memorable wedding for me, anyway.”

Located directly across from St. Isidore’s Church on Pulaski Street, the hall has seen its share of wedding receptions, christenings, baby showers, wedding anniversaries, political debates and even a few funerals.

The hall’s Golden Ballroom holds up to 330 people, and the Garden Room holds up to 75. Host to many pancake breakfasts for local churches and charitable organizations, the hall was also chosen for Suffolk County’s centennial celebration in 1986. The hall is also a safe house for children in the event of an emergency at the Pulaski Street School.

The four-lane bowling alley downstairs is the first organized in Suffolk County. It is open to the public seven days a week from 11 a.m. to midnight with men’s and women’s leagues competing Monday through Friday. While most events at the hall are catered, on the last Thursday of every month except December, the Polish Hall offers a monthly steak night to the general public.

“It used to be $4.50 for the meal and all the drinks you could have,” Mr. Jeneski remembered. “But they used to hide the bottles under the table, because when the bottle was empty we’d give them another one, so we finally put the squash on the free booze.”

At one time the large catering room was used for basketball games and hosted a few boxing matches, according to Mr. Wilinski.

“At one time I understand that Joe Louis boxed here,” he said. “Even Hillary Clinton passed through here, so this hall has a lot of history.”