So saddened to hear about the death of Tony Curtis yesterday. In Budapest, Curtis, who is of Hungarian descent, is as well known for his generosity as he is for his movies. In 1998, he founded the Emanuel Foundation for Hungarian Culture, a New York-based organization that works for the restoration and preservation of synagogues and 1300 Jewish cemeteries in Hungary.
Within the confines of Budapest’s Great Synagogue exists the Tree of Life Holocaust Memorial, funded by the Emanuel Foundation, in memory of the 600,000 Hungarian Jews who were murdered by the Nazis. The tree, which is made of stainless steel and silver, is fashioned to look like a weeping willow. The shape of the tree resembles an upside down menorah. Inscribed on its 4000 metal leaves are the names of Hungarian Holocaust victims. And on the top of the black granite double archway that sits in front of the tree, a Hebrew inscription asks: “Is there a bigger pain than mine?”
The Tree of Life Holocaust Memorial
It t is very common to see visitors placing rocks at the base of the tree. It is not known with certainty where the Jewish custom of placing rocks on tombstones originated from. One theory goes that as ancient travelers walked the dusty roads between cities, there were occasions in which they would come upon the body of a deceased person. The custom was to bury the body under rocks to protect it from wild life and the elements. As other travelers walked by the grave site they would add a extra stone, as the stones invariably shifted. Adding a stone to a grave site ensured that the body remained covered. It is simply a show of respect for the dead.
A steeple of the 13th-century St Matthias is adorned with Zsolnay ceramic tiles
The first time I saw the work of Zsolnay Porcelain Works was shortly after we moved to Budapest, up on Castle Hill. Our tour guide pointed out the 13th-century St Matthias church, a gothic stone structure topped with a baffling mix of brilliantly colored ceramic tiles. When I asked our guide about the incongruent roof, she explained that the church had been rebuilt and reconstructed several times over the centuries, the tiles added during one such episode in the late 19-century. As I began to better familiarize myself with Budapest, I noticed these distinctive, polychromatic tiles on just about all of the city’s landmark buildings: the Four Seasons Gresham Palace,the Museum of Applied Arts, the National Archives of Hungary building, the (former) Royal Post Office Savings Bank, and the Grand Market Hall, to name just a few. Was this a regional fad? It wasn’t until months later, when I attended a local art auction, that I would learn the answer to that question. Yes, that “fad” was called Hungarian art nouveau, and Zsolnay Porcelain Works played a key role in it.
A fellow expat, who works as a docent at the city’s Museum of Fine Arts, told me about a famed ceramic factory located near the Croatian border, in the medieval village of Pecs, Hungary, after she saw me admiring one of the lots, an iridescent art nouveau vase made around 1900,. “See how the colors seem to change in the light, reflecting shades of yellow, blue, and purple?” she asked. “That’s the hallmark of a Zsolnay! You’ve seen their tiles all over town by now.” Indeed, I had. Suddenly, it was like everything was beginning to click in place, and I began to feel something similar to falling in love. Yes, it was with the vase, but more so the manufacturer who had produced it. Unfortunately, I left the auction empty handed—the vase was way out of league with my pocketbook. However, I did leave with something: a desire to learn more about Zsolnay.
Antique Zsolnay vase, circa 1900
I found a lot of erroneous and contradicting history on the company. Such is the blessing and curse of the internet. Fortunately—with the aid of a few good art books, some reliable web resources, and several visits to my neighborhood antique dealer (Virag Judit Gallery in District V), I was able to construct a short bio on the company.
The Zsolnay Story
Zsolnay Porcelain Works was founded in 1853 by Miklós Zsolnay (1800-1880), in southeastern Hungary. He originally produced stoneware and pottery, but when his son Vilmos Zsolnay (1828-1900) took over the family business in 1865, it was taken in another direction. Vilmos produced high-end tea services and vases instead. Early tea services depicting scenes from the Brothers Grimm tales date back to this era, but the company is best known among collectors today for producing vividly colored vases and glassware that have a metallic-like luster, achieved through a process called eosin glazing (from the Greek eos, meaning flush of dawn). The process involves firing at extremely high temperatures, resulting in iridescent hues of red. It was an idea not unfamiliar with the Danes, but it was Vilmos who perfected it. Over the years, he continued to experiment with glazes to achieve a variety of colors favored by art nouveau and Secessionist artists. In fact, several then-famous Hungarian Secessionist artists designed a number of pieces for the Zsolnay factory, including Sándor Apáti Abt, Lajos Mack, Géza Nikelszky, and József Rippl-Rónai. By the close of the 19th century, Zsolnay was firmly established as a decorative arts leader in the art nouveau movement.
Zsolnay flask, circa 1900, available at the Virag Judit Gallery in Budapest, valued at approx. $15,000 to $20,000 USD
As was the trend in art nouveau, Zsolnay adopted motifs inspired by the local folklore and borrowed ideas from India, Turkey, and Asia. Vilmos himself studied Islamic art and ceramics in London, and applied those concepts to his work, which won him, among numerous other awards, the Grand Prix gold medal at the 1878 World Exhibition in Paris. In 1887, Vilmos sent his son, also named Miklos, to the Middle East, where he traveled for several months through Istanbul, Izmir, Larnaka, Beirut, Baalbek, Damascus, Jerusalem, Jaffa, and Cairo, collecting artwork and corresponding in German back to his family in Pecs the images that he saw.
The company’s chief designer during the art nouveau years and beyond was the very talented Tádé Sikorski (1852 – 1940), a Polish architect and artist who trained in Vienna. In addition to having a hand in the building of that city’s State Opera House, Sikorski had also been the director of a state-operated school of ceramics in Vienna. During a study tour in 1882, he visited the Zsolnay factory in Pecs and met Vilmos’ daughter Júlia. They were married a year later, and he thus became a key personality within the factory. From 1900 to 1940, Sikorski oversaw the architectural division of the company, and produced frost-resistant tiles and exterior decorations for buildings.In his work, one finds many floral themes, such as sunflowers, tulips, plants, and bees that are common in Hungarian folk decoration.
Hungary’s leading art nouveau architect, Ödön Lechner (1845-1914), also known as the “Hungarian Gaudí,” incorporated Zsolnay decorations and roof tiles into his buildings, evidenced in such architectural gems as the blue-tiled Thonet House (1888-89) on Vaci street, the blue roof of the Hungarian State Geologicial Institute, and the green and yellow tiles and ornaments of the (former) Royal Post Office Savings Bank (1899-1901). Lechner appreciated the fact that Zsolnay’s pyrogranite ceramics could be molded into intricate designs and coated with exotically colored glazes. As did other prominent architects in the region, such as Miklós Ybl, who designed Budapest’s Opera House, and Imre Steindl, who designed the Parliament Building.
Facade of the Former Royal Post Office and Savings Bank
Close-up of Zsolnay tiles on former Royal Postal and Savings
After the death of Vilmos Zsolnay in 1900, the management of Zsolnay Porcelain Works passed into the hands of his son Miklos Zsolnay (1857-1922), who continued the family tradition. The Great War that began in 1914, however, began an unfortunate chain of events for Hungary, as well as the Zsolnay Porcelain Works. During World War I, production of pottery ceased. Instead of creating beautiful objets d’art, the factory was forced to produce insulators for military use. After the war, raw materials were difficult to source, to say nothing of the factory’s declining fortunes due to a global economic depression and the Serbian occupation. Then came World War II, when a bomb destroyed the company’s facility in Budapest. The final insult came with the rule of communism, when the factory was nationalized and stripped of its family name, thereafter known as the Pécsi Porcelángyár (Pécs Porcelain Factory), and producing common tableware goods.
Then in 1982, with the resumption of a market economy, the company regained its operational independence, reorganized, and reclaimed the Zsolnay name. Today, the company is producing ceramic items again, in bulk for the Swedish company IKEA, as well as producing fine ceramics from resurrected designs from the company’s Secessionist era. And then there are collectors (and admirers like me) who live vicariously in the late-19th century through the beautiful works that Zsolnay Porcelain Works created during its glory years. – Jessica Tudzin
Where to See Zsolnay in Budapest Architecture
The green miniature statues on the Hungarian Parliament Building (1896)
The steam-resistant tiles of the Gellért Baths (1918)
The gold exterior tiles and sea-green interior tiles of the Four Seasons Gresham Palace (1906)
The rainbow-colored roof of the 13th-century Matthias Church (added in 1896)
The blue-tiled domes of City Zoo’s elephant house (1912)
The blue ceramic tomb of Sándor Schmidl, a prominent local grocer, in the Kozma Street Jewish Cemetery (1903)
The gold-glazed tile interiors of the Franz Liszt Music Academy (1907)
The blue-tiled Thonet House on Vaci street (1888-89)
The blue roof of the Hungarian State Geological Institute (1899)
The green and yellow tiles and ornaments of the (former) Royal Post Office Savings Bank (1899-1901)
The gold curvaceous decorative ceramics on the Museum of Applied Art (1896), where inside you can also see some prime examples of Zsolnay vases and glassware.
Also consider a day trip to Pecs, Hungary, where you can visit the Zsolnay Porcelain factory and tour its museum.
St Andrew, Francisco de Zubaran. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
The heirs to the Herzog Collection, the largest private art collection in Hungary prior to World War II, filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia late yesterday to seek the return of artworks they claim were illegally held by Hungary since the Holocaust. They further claim that Hungary, a WWII-era ally of Nazi Germany that organized the dispossession, seizure, deportation, and eventual deaths of more than 500,000 Jews, exploited the fact that the family had been forced to flee Hungary as a result of Hungary‟s acts of genocide in order to retain or reacquire possession of the family‟s artworks at the end of the war.
The Herzog Collection
The Herzog family‟s lawsuit seeks the return from Hungary, three of its state-owned museums, and one state-owned university of over 40 works with a combined value over $100 million, including masterworks by El Greco, Francisco de Zurbarán, and Lucas Cranach the Elder. Regarded by art experts as the world‟s largest unresolved Holocaust art claim, the case is the culmination of a decades-long effort by three generations of Herzog heirs to recover their family‟s property.
The works come from the collection of Baron Mór Lipót Herzog, a passionate Jewish art collector whose daughter married into the de Csepel family, one of the most influential industrialist families in pre-WWII Hungary. After Baron Herzog‟s death in 1934 the collection remained intact with his wife, and after her passing in 1940 was divided among their three children, Erzsébet (Elizabeth), István (Steven) and András (Andrew), who intended to continue their father‟s legacy as a patron of the arts.
Nazi-Era Looting and Aftermath
When Germany occupied Hungary in 1944, the Third Reich dispatched the notorious Adolf Eichmann to orchestrate the annihilation of the Jews of Hungary and the plunder of their personal property and treasures. Within a matter of months, Hungarian Jews were deprived of their freedom and property, and nearly half a million Jews living on the countryside were transported by Hungarian security forces to their deaths in German concentration camps. The Hungarian government already had enacted a law requiring Jews to deposit their art with the government for “safe keeping.” The Herzog Collection, one of the most splendid in Europe, was inspected personally by Eichmann, who designated certain works for shipment to Germany. The remainder were left in Hungary‟s possession or looted by others.Stripped of their belongings and fearing for their lives, the surviving members of the Herzog family were forced to flee Hungary or face extermination. Parts of the family immigrated to the United States, while others escaped to South America or remained in Europe.
The Holy Family with St Anne, El Greco. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
In the years immediately following World War II, Hungary and its museums were responsible for safeguarding artworks that had been seized during the war, including those recovered in the territories of the Third Reich and returned to Hungary, until their owners could be identified and located. Instead of returning the artworks to their rightful owners as required by Hungary‟s 1947 peace treaty with the Allies, the museums managed to avoid turning over physical possession of most of the Herzog Collection. Instead, they attempted to extract substantial fees to cover the “cost” of recovering the art from the Third Reich and denied export permits to the Herzog family members who had fled Hungary during the Holocaust. In the rare instances where the government offered to return art to Herzog family representatives in Hungary, Hungarian government officials subjected those representatives to harassment, including false smuggling allegations, until they had no choice but to agree to allow the artworks to be “returned” to the museums for “safekeeping.”
Attempts at Restitution
With the opening of Hungary to the West in 1989, the Herzog heirs started making inquiries and learned that many pieces of their art collection were being openly exhibited, hanging on the walls of the Hungarian National Gallery and the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. The tags under the paintings identified them as “From the Herzog Collection.” The family attempted to retrieve their artworks through negotiations with Hungary‟s post-communist government. Although the Hungarian government recognized the family‟s ownership rights to the artworks, negotiations were unsuccessful. After several years of negotiations, Martha Nierenberg, the daughter of Erzsébet (Herzog) Weiss de Csepel, saw no choice but to pursue legal proceedings in Hungary to recover a portion of the Herzog Collection. She was joined in that effort by then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), among others, who appealed to the Hungarian government to return the treasured Herzog Collection to its owners. Hungary has rebuffed or ignored all such requests despite the fact that prior to many of those requests, at the 1998 Washington Conference, it pledged that it was “fully committed to the restitution or compensation of Holocaust victims concerning cultural assets” and that it would appoint a commissioner to manage the task. Twelve years later, no commissioner has been named, nothing of consequence has been returned to the Jews from whom it was taken, and works from the Herzog Collection continue to be displayed prominently, and profitably, at Hungary‟s state-owned museums.
“It would be so simple for the government to make this right, but our struggle goes on,” said Martha Nierenberg, the daughter of Erzsébet (Herzog) Weiss de Csepel, who fled the Holocaust with her family in 1944 and has championed efforts for the return of the collection. “I hope this lawsuit will restore what was lost to my family and has been held hostage by the government of Hungary for more than half a century.”
“In the area of Holocaust restitution, the government of Hungary has been a particularly bad actor,” said Michael S. Shuster of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman LLP, the lead attorney
in the Herzog lawsuit. “Hungary attempts to portray itself as a nation worthy of our respect and investment, while refusing to comply with its basic obligations under international law. In contrast to Hungary, Germany returned artworks from the Herzog Collection to the Herzog heirs this spring without the need for legal action. We had no choice but to bring the Herzog family„s claim before a U.S. court.”
The case, spearheaded by plaintiff David de Csepel, the grandson of Erzsébet (Herzog) Weiss de Csepel, is filed just as Hungary has concluded a year-long cultural program in the United States. The program, known as “Extremely Hungary,” contained no references to the mass genocide of its Jewish citizens during the Hungarian Holocaust or the gruesome manner in which the government acquired some of the most significant artistic pieces in its possession and failed to acknowledge its crimes against humanity. — Information provided by Herzog family.For more information about the family and their art collection, please visit the Herzog family website at www.hungarylootedart.com
A year ago, when my husband Allan asked me what I thought about moving from Los Angeles to Budapest, I must admit, I knew very little about Hungary and its capital city. Would we be moving to some exotic place, rich with Turkish and Eastern influences, a place similar to, say, Istanbul? Or would Hungary, with its various wine countries and mighty Danube River, be the Eastern European answer to the West’s Rhone Valley? Or would it bear the wounds from the past, a bleak and pale satellite of the former Soviet Union, full of waddling babushkas and dilapidated communist-era buildings? I simply had no idea what to expect. I soon found out that I was far from alone in my lack of knowledge about Budapest, which is actually understandable since most Americans have been taught very little about societies that once existed behind the Iron Curtain. Up until 1989, all we really knew about these former Soviet-controlled countries was that they were impoverished, oppressive, and foreboding. Sadly, that perception still lingers. As I began to talk about our move to various friends and acquaintances–many of whom are well-read, well-traveled, or both–the responses bordered on comical, if not conciliatory.
“Too bad you’re moving to Eastern Europe instead of Western Europe.”
“At least you’ll be close to Prague.”
“It’s not something I would do, but I can understand why you would want to.”
“I hate Eastern Europe.”
“Are you moving to Buda or Pest; one’s better than the other.”
“Good luck being a vegetarian there!”
And my absolute favorite: “Where’s Budapest?”
Clearly, Budapest does not top most people’s list of “Places to See Before I Die”. It’s more of an after-thought destination, a place where travelers pass through on the way to or from some place else. And that’s a pity. To my ever-growing delight, Budapest has turned out to be a warm and vibrant city, beautified by fin-de-siecle architecture, public parks, and monuments—and boasting a culture rich with cafes, restaurants, music, art, and wine. In fact, ask any Hungarian what other nationality they most identify with, and they are most apt to say the Italians, as they both share a similar joi de vie.
Some people may be turned off by the idea that Hungary is completely landlocked—by Slovakia to the north, the Ukraine to the northeast, Romania to the southeast, Serbia and Croatia to the south, and Slovenia and Austria to the west. But trust me, with an abundance of natural springs and the mighty Danube flowing through its very center, there is no shortage of water here.
During the early winter months, the city bristles with holiday energy and sparkling lights, followed by several months of short days and heaps of snow. For the expat living here, the season may take some getting used to. Once you get the lay of the land, however, winter can take on its own special rhythm that might include visits to the theater, nights of jazz and art at the city’s various museums, perhaps a Chopin recital at the city’s new music hall on the Danube River, or a wine dinner at one of Budapest’s many wine shops. And thanks to the Turks who introduced coffee and bathhouses to the region several centuries ago, one can always warm up at one of the myriad coffee shops and bathhouses in town.
Once spring arrives, tourists and locals head for the outdoors; they walk the pedestrian streets, jog along the river, or just sit a while on a park bench and take in the live gypsy music provided by one of many street entertainers. One can also take in the local color while lingering over a meal at a sidewalk cafe. Be sure to order a glass of the local Hungarian wine, and you’ll be all set for some very serious people watching. I have a theory that the cold winter months have conditioned the Hungarians to enjoy the sun while it shines. So far, my theory has held up, as we have had a festival every weekend since the arrival of spring.
In terms of celebrating summer, there is not much difference between today’s Budapest and the one of yesteryear. In his book entitled Budapest 1900, author John Lukacs writes that “May and June in Hungary, even in Budapest, have something near-Mediterranean about them. The chairs and tables were put out before the cafés and in the open-air restaurants. It was then that the nocturnal life of Budapest blossomed …. Summer was the recurrent feeling, the promise of pleasure.”
Regardless of season, I most favor the architecture of this ancient city. I walk looking up, paying close attention to all the intricate details on the buildings and try to imagine the era in which they were built. It is no accident that modern-day visitors to Budapest draw similarities to the architecture of Vienna and Prague. Throughout Central and Eastern Europe, one cannot underestimate the influence of the Habsburg Dynasty. Though long dead, it lives on in the culture it left behind, perhaps most notably in its architecture. It is said that Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (1717-1780)—the mother of Marie Antoinette and sovereign of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Mantua, Milan, Lodomeria and Galicia, the Austrian Netherland, and Parma—ordered all churches and public buildings within the Empire painted in her favorite colors of yellow and white. Examples of this decree can be seen throughout the entire region today, including the 18th-century neo-Baroque churches of St. Anne’s and the Tabán Parish situated on the Buda side of the Danube.
In the late-19th century, just as Vienna was winding up construction on the Ringstrasse (the grand boulevard that surrounds that city), Emperor Franz Joseph ordered the construction of Andrassy Boulevard on the Pest side of Budapest to commemorate the 1000-year anniversary of the Magyar tribes (now known as Hungarians) arrival in Hungary. Though diagonal and not circular like Ringstrasse, the tree-lined Andrassy Boulevard, with its magnificent stone mansions do call forth some similarities. Indeed, up until the end of the Great War, Vienna and Budapest—the the two capital cities of the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy—shared a highly civilized rivalry with each other, always striving to outdo the other in architecture, literature, and music. In terms of layout, however, visitors to Budapest are more apt to draw comparisons with Prague—which is actually much more compact than Budapest, but similarly features a hilly castle district and a bustling metropolis that are joined across a river by historic bridges.
But for me, Budapest is a city unto itself: Like other places in some ways, but unlike any other. It has the hilly Buda side, with it Austro-Germanic architecture, secret gardens, and underground caves. And it has its bustling Pest side, with its Secessionist architecture, art galleries, museums, antique shops, and a great night life. The people of Budapest are both young and old, edgy and traditional, exuberant and melancholy. In other words, Budapest is a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. It is, after all, like a well-made goulash, with just the right measurements of spice and a lot of different ingredients. And it’s everything I imagined—babushkas and then some. – Jessica Tudzin
Comments may be emailed to Jessicat1000@gmail.com
= sights to see =
St. Stephen’s Basilica – Located in the city center on the Pest side, the basilica is dedicated to Hungary’s first king, St. Stephen, who was crowned on Christmas Day 1000. Visitors should not miss taking the winding staircase to the building’s domed roof, which affords panoramic views of the city. Also head to the chapel before leaving, where the mummified forearm of St. Stephen’s is kept as a holy relic.
St. Stephen's Basilica
Parliament Building –The imposing, neo-gothic Parliament building was built by Imre Steindl and overlooks the Danube River. The structure was modeled on the famed British Parliament building on the Thames in London. English tours are available three times per day: 10 am, 12 pm, and 2 pm. Regardless of the time of the tour, it is strongly advised that you purchase your tickets first thing in the morning.
Castle District – Take the funicular up Buda Hill to the Royal Castle. Here, a maze of cobbled streets, medieval courtyards, underground caves, and secret gardens. The current uniform Baroque appearance emerged in the mid-18th century. As part of the restoration and decorative extensions at the end of the 19th century, the Fisherman’s Bastion was built to honor the fishermen who once sold fish on the banks of the Danube. Visit Mathias Church, built in the 14th century, and outfitted with colorful 19th-century Szolnay tiles on its roof. During the Turkish occupation, the church was converted into a mosque. Under the Habsburg rule, the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I is crowned here as a King of Hungary.
Váci Utca is the tourist zone and city’s main pedestrian street, known for offering goods that were, until recently, unobtainable elsewhere in Eastern Europe. During Communitst rule, citizens behind the iron curtain received a taste of Western culture here on Vaci Street.
Grand Central Market is located in a former 19th century railroad station at the south end of Váci Utca. It offers a glimpse into the diversity of Hungary’s agricultural production, as well as the daily lives of its citizens.
Grand Synagogue – Built from 1854-59, it is the world’s second largest (after the synagogue in NYC) and Europe’s largest synagogue, with a seating capacity of 3,000. The Romantic style is strongly mixed with Byzantine and Moorish elements. Adjoining to the fully restored buildings is the Hall of Heroes, where the Monument of Hungarian Jewish Martyrs was erected in 1991. The Jewish Museum is next door. A visit to the Holocaust memorial room is a moving experience.
Zoo and Botanical Garden – One of the oldest zoos in the world, some 500 mammals, nearly 700 birds, 1500 reptiles, fishes, and arthropods, plus 1,500 plant species all come together here. Opened in 1866, the zoo’s newer buildings reflect Hungarian art nouveau and national Romantic, and Oriental-Hungarian styles. The interiors of the recently restore Elephant House resemble a Muslim sanctuary.
The Budapest History Museum has exhibitions on the history of the city, plus restored elements of the destroyed medieval castle and the sculptures.
The Ethnographical Museum was erected in 1893-96 as the Supreme Court. Behind a Classical façade, visitors will find a variety of neo-Renaissance spaces. The permanent exhibitions show Hungarian folklore customs and craftsmanship. Free folklore music concerts are often held on Sunday mornings.
The House of Hungarian Wines is the only place where you can find more than 680 kinds of wine. Take a stroll around the 22 wine regions of Hungary and sample some of the best wines in the world.
Museum of Fine Art – Old Masters from outside Hungary. The museum houses a large Spanish collection (El Greco, Velazquez, Goya) and an impressiove Italian collection (Bronzino, Bolleotto, Raphael).
For visitors of Budapest, the Four Seasons Gresham Palace deserves a place high on the must-see list. It exhibits a magnificent example of Hungarian Secessionist architecture, replete with romantic balconies, larger-than-life statues, bas reliefs, and gold mosaic tiles. Crowning the building is a bust of Sir Thomas Gresham, a 16th-century British financier. Built in the very early years of the 20th-century, when Budapest and Vienna both served as capital cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
= The back story =
image courtesy of Four Seasons Gresham Palace
The property Gresham Palace stands on is one of the city’s most prime pieces of real estate, located on the Pest side at the base of the Chain Bridge. The site was acquired by a British insurance company – the now-defunct Gresham Life Assurance Company of London – in 1880, with the intention of building a monumental building to house their foreign office. The blueprints included a shopping arcade on its ground floor and about 70 luxury residences above the ground floor to serve as a source of rental income. (Insurance companies at the time were prohibited by law from investing in such risky investments as the stock market.) When Gresham Palace opened in 1906, it immediately became the city’s most fashionable address. And its opulent façade served as a “discreet promotion” of the company’s financial strength.
= What is Hungarian Secession architecture? =
The Secessionist Movement (also called Jugendstil, German for “youth”) has its origins among the Viennese avant-garde, who, like their Art Nouveau counterparts in fin-de-siecle Paris, rejected the stuffy 19th-century fad of neo-gothic, neo-classical, neo-baroque, and neo-renaissance architecture in favor of a more free-style form; they were essentially seeking to define the art of a new generation on the doorstep of a new century, and preferably one that did not include a past that they did not belong to. The movement was not limited to the Vienna border, but spilled throughout the whole of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, from Bohemia to Croatia. Secessionist art and architecture typically features motifs borrowed from nature, as well as Japanese and Egyptian art, and favors vibrant colors, and sinuous lines and curls. Like Vienna, Budapest was reinventing itself as a World City in the final years of the 19th century, and experienced a construction boom that would last through the first decade of the next century. As a result, both Vienna and Budapest boast many examples of Secessionist architecture. In Budapest, Ödön Lechner (1845-1914) was the most influential architect of the time. He sought to create an identifiable Hungarian National Style by combining Secession motifs with elements from Hungarian folk art and Hindu, evidenced in his designs of the Museum of Applied Arts, the Hungarian National Bank, and the (former) Post Office Savings Bank. And of course, there is the Hungarian architect Zsigmond Quittner (1857 – 1918), who, in addition to building an array of sophisticated apartment blocks, designed Gresham Palace.
= The architect and master craftsmen who built Gresham Palace =
Given free reign and generous funding by his client Gresham Life, Quittner chose some of Hungary’s most talented artists and craftsman to work on the Gresham Palace project. Zsolnay Porcelain Company out of the medieval city of Pecs, Hungary,produced the decorative tiles for the building. Zsolnay won acclaim in 1878 when the company received a gold medal at the World Exhibition in Paris, France. The company’s founder developed a “secret” glazing method that produced a lovely iridescent coloring. Zsolnay tiles can be found in many buildings of Budapest, including the ceramic tiles that grace the roof of the city’s landmark Mathias Church. Two world wars and communist rule essentially thrust the Zsolnay Porcelain Company into obscurity during most of the 20th century (their Budapest factory was bombed and destroyed during the Second World War), but in recent years, Zsolnay has been making a return among collectors and ceramic aficionados, and is happily enjoying a reputation for its fine ceramic craftsmanship once again.
Glass master Miksa Róth(1865 -1944) executed the exterior glass mosaics and the stained glass windows of Grisham Palace. His work, too, can be seen all over Budapest, including the colorful stained glass mosaics found inside the Hungarian National Bank.
The intricate railings of the main staircases and the three large peacock gates that open onto the courtyard lobby were made in the workshop of Gyula Jungfer (1841-1908), a master in wrought-iron work and one of the most celebrated names in Hungarian decorative arts of the late-19th and early 20th centuries. The decorative wrought iron works in Buda Castle (formerly called the Habsburg’s Hungarian Royal Palace), the neo-gothic Hungarian Parliament Building, the Hungarian State Opera House, St. Stephen’s Basilica, Keleti Railway Station, and Vigado Concert Hall are among is most prominent commissions.The railing of Buda Castle, considered his most important work, was destroyed during World War II, but was restored in 1981 to its original condition.
Hungarian master sculptor Eduard Telcs (1874 – 1948) created the statues on the first floor of the Palace, and the large bust near the top of the building façade of British financier Sir Thomas Gresham. Other decorative elements of the facade were the work of Geza Maroti (1875 – 1941), whose talents combined architecture, sculpture, and painting.
War and Communism take their toll
The siege of Budapest in 1944 destroyed about 70 percent of the buildings in the city. As the German army retreated from the Russians, they blew up the Chain Bridge. The explosion scarred the façade of Gresham Palace and caused the wrought-iron peacock gates to be wrenched off their hinges. The repairs made were nominal, using whatever materials that were available during war time. The chandeliers were removed and replaced with standard light bulbs, while the leaded glass windows gradually disappeared.
Immediately after the war, British and American diplomats and military personnel moved in. The U.S. also opened a temporary public library on the premises. When the Hungarian Communist Government nationalized the Gresham Palace in 1948, they divided the palatial apartments into small units and state companies took over the offices. In the latter days of Communism, retired Soviet officers were allowed to take up residence in the building, which even as the building fell into serious disrepair was still considered a privilege. Although the Gresham Palace was named a protected landmark in the 1970s, it received little if any maintenance. The story goes that passersby during this period could pick up valuable Zsolnay ceramic tiles right off the sidewalk as they fell from the building’s crumbling facade.
= A return to glory =
When Hungary became a democracy once again in 1989, the Hungarian National Government transferred ownership of Gresham Palace to the City of Budapest. In 1998, an investment firm acquired the Palace and received approval from the Budapest Heritage Board to reconstruct it into a luxury hotel with the provision that it retain its original appearance.
The Four Seasons took over the restoration in 2004, a project that took 2 years and $110-million. As Gresham Life had done nearly a century ago, Four Seasons sought out Hungary’s best wrought-iron specialists, silversmiths, stained-glass makers, ceramists, mosaicists, and other craftspeople to preserve what they could and reconstruct the rest based on old documents and photographs.
Artisans replaced the glass roof to mimic the original, using surviving remnants as a guide. About 120 workers standing on scaffolding restored the stone facade. The mosaicists reconstructed the brilliant mosaics of the Miksa Roth, using materials imported from Venice, just like the originals. Ironsmiths restored the peacock gates at the building’s entrance. Back is the T-shaped interior shopping arcade roofed with glass. Back are the grand staircases, the stained glass windows, the mosaics, and the intricate ironwork. And new, since the 2004 restoration, is the spa — sans a million-dollar view looking out over the Chain Bridge, the hills of Buda, and the Danube River. To get that view, one must book a room at the hotel. — Jessica Tudzin
Feature photo courtesy of Four Seasons Gresham Palace.
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