The Palace Quarter is one of Budapest’s hidden gems, a hub of elegant properties just behind the National Museum which the 19th-century aristocracy used as their pieds à terre in the capital. In the 1990s, real-estate companies, aware that surrounding dowdy district of Józsefváros had a poor reputation, re-established the prestige of this once well-to-do locality. Now streets such as Bródy Sándor utca merit exploration.
It was György Festetics, the nobleman who developed domestic farming around Keszthely near Balaton, who bought the equivalent of 400 plots in this area in the early 1800s. Back then, there was no National Museum, its construction only beginning in the 1830s.
The quarter fell outside the historic Pest city wall, and was characterised by a swampy lake, a slaughterhouse and small garden plots.
also responsible for the Georgikon agricultural college and the famous library
wing of his namesake palace in Keszthely, planned to built a huge residence
here. His workers even moved the pole marking the plot boundary of the planned building
on today's Bródy Sándor utca.
Festetics was ridiculed and even threatened, and as the urban fabric of the city grew, so more aristocratic villas were built. Serious tensions arose between the magnates and the former inhabitants.
These aristocrats, nobles and wealthy citizens were keen to own the city’s most luxurious properties and hired the best architects in the country. It is no coincidence that here you find houses designed by Miklós Ybl, responsible for the Opera House, among other ornate creations. Most of these beautiful edifices are still in good condition today, although walking around the area, you’ll pass many a house that could do with renovation.
Festetics’ labourers cut down trees and vines to erect the building where Hungarian Radio now stands. Walking from here to the fence of the National Museum, you see a sign showing the level of the icy water during the terrible flood of March 1838, when more than 3,000 houses in Pest were destroyed or severely damaged.
A Beautification Committee was put in charge of the reconstruction, according to strict guidelines. The embankments were rebuilt – when there was another icy flood upriver in 1876, Pest was unharmed.
The oldest street in
the district, Bródy Sándor utca, cobblestoned between Múzeum körút and
Gutenberg tér, was paved in the 18th century. It was known as Téglavető utca in
the 16th century, and later named Major utca. But from the 1840s onwards, it
changed its name to Főherceg Sándor utca.
Soon afterwards, every gentleman's favourite lingerie merchant, Ádám Károly, chose a plot at the beginning of the street. His wife commissioned a replica of the palaces of Venice from the most sought-after private architect of the era, Antal Wéber. The house had everything a magnate could need: 31 rooms, four bathrooms, three kitchens, stables, a coachhouse and plenty of frescoes covering the interiors and the loggia.
The fact that her brother was Budapest’s most famous fresco painter, Károly Lotz was the icing on the cake. In recent years, his works here have been restored, allowing the viewer to admire the depiction of the cycles of life, joy, love and the arts behind the balcony columns.
The writer after whom the street was eventually named, Sándor Bródy, known as the Hungarian Émile Zola, lived at number 18-20. Here he not only wrote his articles for the then respectable daily Magyar Hírlap, but also the first volume of his short stories, Nyomor ('Misery’).
The building of the
first Hungarian parliament is also on this street. It has long changed its
function and now operates as the Italian Cultural Institute. The property, shown
on the back of today’s HUF 20,000 note, was originally built for members of the Lower House, while members of the Upper House met at the National Museum.
The Neo-Renaissance building, another designed by Miklós Ybl, was completed in just five months in 1865. Emperor Franz Joseph had set an impossibly short deadline for its construction, not to hasten it but in the hope that it would fail. The Hungarian parliament would therefore not be able to convene in early December. Essentially, he was right. Although the building was ready on time, due to damp on the walls and poor acoustics, it would be a while before the first parliamentary session here.
The sundial house on the corner of the street is one of the most mysterious buildings in Budapest, if you look at its strange motifs. This castle-like structure is linked to the shadowy figure of György Gschwindt, a follower of Freemasonry, occultism and mysteries – and music, as he had a concert hall built in the basement of his mansion.
He had acquired his huge fortune from his family thanks to the sales of a drink called Aqua Vitae, but then squandered it researching the elixir of eternal life in his secret lab in the house. Legend has it that he actually found something, but he was so excited about the announcement that before he could share the new knowledge with his friends, he died of a heart attack.
Champagne baron József Törley also lived in this street. His Neo-Baroque villa covered with bunches of grapes was built in 1894 according to the plans of the family’s personal architect, Ray Rezső. This historic building is richly decorated inside and out, with the family coat of arms above the main entrance. Today it houses the Scientific Dissemination Society.
It is worth going beyond the Hungarian Radio building to explore further historic and eclectic properties. Number 13 was where Pál Gyulai lived, one of the most influential literary critics of the 20th century. Here were also the editorial offices of Budapesti Szemle and Olcsó Könyvtár, although not specifically in this building, but the previous house demolished in 1899 and this one of clinker brick built in the early 1900s. Gyulai lived in both, the original bought by his father-in-law, Ignác Szendrey, for his daughter and her husband.
At the end of the street, on a corner of Gutenberg tér, stands a palace
decorated with libertine women, built by a rather strange figure, Pasha Jenő
Freystadtler Lovag, for his only and eternal love, the actress Amália Jákó. As described
in Hungarian on the Secrets of the Palace District Facebook page,
legend surrounds how the besotted magnate became a pasha: did he get the
title in Bosnia or did he take it from a noble Persian friend?
The mystery remains unsolved but even famed Budapest chronicler Gyula Krúdy wrote about him. The wealthy young man also had a mansion on Múzeum utca, where he lived out his passion for horses, fencing and women. He allegedly had an exhibition room where he showed sculptures of his lovers. Unfortunately, after World War I, he fell into poverty, and the woman for whom he had built the villa never walked through its doors again.