Budapestâ€™s The Pocket Guide to
now we will let you in on a secret. One reason why the old Jewish district of Budapest is so lovable is because you can stroll around comfortably on its quiet streets and still be in the big city, around major public transit hubs. Curvy, walkable, downtown streets â€“ they make enjoying the architectural feats in the district an unparalleled experience. Rarely do we have an area in a European capital where it is still possible to see the evolution from a rural development into a town, then a city, then a capital, while simultaneously being able to track the changes in architectural needs, tastes, and styles. It is almost as if we were ďŹ‚ipping through a well-illustrated book of architectural history. How did this book come together?
In the 18th century this place was all sandy patches, empty lots, and fields. The city of Pest was surrounded by a wall, and the craftsmen and merchants who could not settle inside the city started building outside of it – one-story houses in the middle of grassy grounds. A district of gardens and dirt roads manifested itself, the borders of which were today’s Király utca and Dob utca. When the area’s apportionment took place and locations for houses were set, cross streets were formed. To this day, the streets’ names – Kisdiófa (Little Walnut Tree), Nagydiófa (Big Walnut Tree), Akácfa (Acacia), Kertész (Gardener) – refer to this period.
Old dirt roads ály
Terézváros after 1777 Unbroken rows of houses
Around the end of the 18th century, the district became Pest’s largest suburb. In 1777 it was named Terézváros. By this time many houses had workshops, stores, and small manufactories in their courtyards. Then came the Danube flood of 1838 and destroyed about half of the buildings. The subsequent rebuilding reshaped the district’s character. The new dwellings had several levels and the spaces between them were filled in. Unbroken rows of houses were formed, but behind their frontispieces remained the gardens and yards of a little town. 11
Most of the classicist and romantic middle class residential structures and tenements which dominate the quarter today were built between 1838 and 1875, after the flood and in the age of the large middle class expansion. It was during this period when the compelling synagogue on Dohány utca was erected at the edge of the neighborhood (1859, Ludwig Förster). A few streets down and just a bit later the Rumbach Sebestyén utca Synagogue was constructed (1872, Otto Wagner). Both were built using the state-of-the-art steel frame technology of the era. This means that the buildings, which feature ample headroom, are supported by steel pillars instead of stone ones. This is why, despite their large sizes, the temples appear light, even airy. If you stop for a few minutes in the square in front of the Dohány Synagogue, you can sense that the dual onion-shaped domes have a special spatial organizational quality which extends over the entire district. This makes the synagogue a central piece of the neighborhood, even though it stands on its fringes. The towers signify something major; the building is a defining venue for the community. As such, it is absolutely worth checking out.
The synagogue on Dohány utca
Classicist apartment building 12
Romanticist apartment building
If you are around the synagogue, you can easily discover the large gates across the street. These are not simply entrances to houses but to passages which lead through them. If you enter the main gate, you will find yourself in the courtyard of a large building. There you will see further gates which will lead you to another yard or to the street. These corridors help us get to our destinations without having to go around the entire block. You will find many of them in the Jewish quarter, especially around the Dohány and Rumbach Synagogues where they came in handy for religious Jews who went to pray several times a day. The courtyards often had small shops and stores. Life was vibrant and colorful inside these monumental edifices. Unfortunately, many of these tracks are now closed due to security concerns, but in a handful of places you can still catch some of the old vibe. For instance, the passageways connecting 1/A Dohány utca and 3/A Károly körút, 2 Dob utca with 5 Károly körút, and the one between 10 Rumbach utca and 9 Károly körút are still active. 13
With the 1873 unification of Pest, Buda, and Óbuda, Budapest was founded, and the region’s development into a real European capital gained momentum. As more and more houses were built, Terézváros became so large, it had to be divided. Once a dirt road, Király utca became a borderline between two city districts. On its left side lies Terézváros, while from 1882 the area on its right is called Erzsébetváros. 1896 was the millennial anniversary of Hungary’s establishment. Simultaneously, Budapest was home to the World Fair. Up until the First World War, these were the years of grand scale construction. Budapest became a metropolis. Five and six story secessionist rental apartment buildings and mansions on Wesselényi utca and Dohány utca brought new flavor to the neighborhood. Classicist, eclectic, and secessionist buildings appeared during this period, which meant more exciting and richer ornamentation. Beautifully crafted iron fences were put up and colorful and cheerful ceramic decorations appeared on the buildings, often featuring the imagery of Judaism. The architects of these buildings were among the period’s finest. You can see their names displayed on plaques next to the buildings’ gates. Much like painters, they too marked their art with their signatures. A new orthodox synagogue on Kazinczy utca was established in 1913. It was designed by Sándor and Béla Löffler. Like the two synagogues built before it, this too featured the latest technologies. Reinforced concrete structures span the sizable inner space. Electric lighting, floor heating, air conditioning – this was all considered high tech back then.
Secessionist decorations at 18 Dob utca
Eclectic house on the corner of Károly körút and Wesselényi utca
Eclectic stucco angel
The secessionist Árkád Bazár
The quarter was able to retain its small town feel during the fin de siècle despite its large tenements. The atmosphere has been preserved in cross streets like Holló utca and Kazinczy utca, where taking a walk is a joy. There we can recognize a type of building unique to this quarter: narrow, two to four story buildings with conjoined workshops or manufactories and studios on their upper floors. These were the houses of entrepreneurs who lived in the immediate vicinity of their shops. The studios on the top floor were often leased to young artists, photographers, architects, or painters.
floors – apartments
mezzanine – office belonging to the shop
ground floor – workshop, shop, store
Owner of copperware plant Tivadar Mika's house
The number of cross-building passageways also increased. Out of these the most significant is Gozsdu-udvar, which comprises of 6 different courtyards and extends from Király utca to Dob utca. Gozsdu was recently renovated. Weekend fairs are often held here. You can enjoy a lively, almost Middle Eastern ambiance.
The Garden of Heroes The Temple of Heroes
In the early 1930s there were two construction projects which brought significant change for the district. First, the Temple of Heroes and the Garden of Heroes were built as memorials for the Jewish soldiers who fell in World War I (1930-1931, László Vágó and Ferenc Faragó). Concurrently the Jewish Museum & Archives was built. Its frontispiece elegantly matches the Dohány Street Synagogue. The architects, Vágó and Faragó, pay an awesome tribute to the synagogue which was put up 70 years prior.
The Hungarian Jewish Museum & Archives 16
The other significant alteration was the start of the construction for Madách Blvd. The road’s first part was in fact finished, and you can see the flamboyant arc de triomphe on Madách Square between large, red brick houses. It would be interesting to know whose glorious entrance the architects were anticipating. 17
The avenue was never finished, and in the 1980s a Manhattan-style office building was erected in its track. This is why it seemed odd that a decade later large scale demolitions were initiated in the district and justified with references to the boulevard. The most threatened buildings and streets were the ones which told the district’s history. It seemed as if they were trying to tear out the pages from our architectural album – an album which weathered the storms of wars and persecution.
Manhattan-style office building near Madách tér
Plaques designating that the building is a historical monument
To combat the troublingly increasing trend of demolition, the NGO ÓVÁS! (Protection/Protestation) Association initiated a surprisingly large and successful civil movement in a very short period of time. The old Jewish quarter of Pest became an “area of historic significance” and many historically valuable but run-down residential buildings were protected by their freshly granted statuses as monuments. This meant that they cannot be destroyed, and when they are renovated they have to be restored in a manner harmonious with their original appearance. UNESCO experts, the most highly regarded professionals in the field, have also raised their voices to protect the district’s architectural legacy. This is our precious inheritance. It was built by previous generations with mastery and care... for us to admire. 18
A SECRET TIP: If you are walking though the streets of the quarter, keep an eye out for the facades. You will find exciting visual treats. Angels will be smiling down on you, sculptures will depict scenes, and uniquely colored ceramics will present themselves – sometimes with Jewish motifs. Here's a taste:
Statues of muscular males and a decoration of Zsolnay ceramics on the frontispiece of a house on Síp utca
Two puttos are holding a mask
Apple pickers in Kertész utca
Menorah motif on a balcony railing
The gate's decoration of the house on the corner of Dob utca and Síp utca resembles a menorah
A Star of David decoration at 47 Király utca 19
“Budapest’s Jewry lived its most beautiful and most dreadful days here. […] Walking through the quarter’s streets, we can witness the history of the Jews of Hungary and Budapest. However, if you pay attention, you can discover today’s Jewish life, too. […] The stones will tell you stories here. But so will the faces which you see. The rich past is still here, when vibrant Jewish life filled the neighborhood. The not so beautiful past is present too, when fear ruled over these streets. The present building on the ruins of yesterday is also at hand. You just have to keep your eyes open to see it. We would like to invite you to get to know this radiant and electrifying world.”
Price: 3500 HUF