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The secret history of Budapest: how a national lottery built a palace

Writers

  • Fürdős Zsanett

01/02/2021 12.57pm

People have been gambling for centuries but the proceeds from one game here built an entire palace in next to no time. Discover how the craze for a national lottery swept Budapest a century or so ago.

Raffles began to appear in Hungary at the end of the 1700s. Oddly enough, while casino activities and dice games were still prohibited, purchasing foreign raffle tickets was legal. Along the lines of charity events in Vienna, attendees of fundraising raffles in Budapest could support local non-profit organisations such as the Institute for the Blind or the Women’s Club of Pest.


Back then, these charitable initiatives helped to crowdfund the establishment of a local health-care, educational and communal infrastructure.

Eskü tér in 1930, Osztálysorsjáték Palota on the right

Photo: Fortepan / Latin

As their popularity grew, a new variant caught on: the Class Lottery. In spite of its name, osztálysorsjáték, it had nothing to do with style, rank or group. The game was divided into several classes of draws, each offering tickets at different prices, and prizes increasing in value the more you paid.


In 1895, the Class Lottery was held as a trial run whose entire revenue was donated to the organisers of the forthcoming Hungarian Millennial Exhibition. Every year, two Class Lottery games were conducted over six different series, each one a separate draw scheduled for a different time.

Osztálysorsjáték Palota

Photo: Ilyenisvoltbudapest.hu

The first took place in the grand hall of the elegant Pesti Vigadó, an event so successful that it was staged twice more that same year. This helped spark an amendment to the gambling laws under which this lottery officially replaced the hitherto popular lutri, an older version of the sweepstake.

Osztálysorsjáték Palota (right)

Photo: Fortepan / Schoch Frigyes

Encouraged by public enthusiasm, the Royal Hungarian Class Lottery Corporation commissioned the construction of a dedicated four-storey palace on Eskü tér, today’s Március 15. tér in the shadow of Elizabeth Bridge, with a splendid view of the Danube.


The style of the Osztálysorsjáték Palota (‘Class Lottery Palace’) was an exciting mixture of Baroque and Art Nouveau elements. The building was an early work by Albert Kálmán Kőrössy and Artúr Sebestyén, devotees of Ödön Lechner, the pioneer of Art Nouveau here.


Its inner courtyard had a glass roof and served as a banquet hall appointed with furniture partly designed by Lechner himself. Kőrössy and Sebestyén went on to become sought-after architects and designed such magnificent buildings as the Hotel Gellért and the Kőrössy Villa near Városliget.

Osztálysorsjáték Palota in ruins

Photo: Fortepan

Up until 1918, the palace housed the offices of the lottery directorate, luxury apartments and even a theatre run by Vilma Medgyaszay, a famous actress of the day. 


During World War II, this beautiful landmark was gutted by fire and burned out so badly that complete renovation seemed impossible. Nowadays, the Pest access to Elizabeth Bridge is located where the palace once stood.

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