Ervin Szabó, Budapest’s Over-the-Top Palace Library, Is Easy to Miss

Ervin Szabó, Budapest’s Over-the-Top Palace Library, Is Easy to Miss

When I walked into Budapest’s Metropolitan Ervin Szabo Library, I thought I might have come to the wrong place. I was looking for a palace, and it was supposed to be right here, but besides a grand yellow entrance hall, it looked like a normal city library branch. Metal stacks, fluorescent lights, beige cubicles, laminate wood flooring, and not a palace in sight. 

The receptionist at the front desk shook his head in the direction of the elevators. “Fourth floor, fourth floor.”

Upon arriving on the fourth floor, I asked the librarian where I should go to see the palace library, and she pointed to the right.

“Go around that corner.”

I did, and stepped into a different world.

Wrapped in the modern addition to the Metropolitan Ervin Szabo Library is neo-Baroque Wenckheim Palace, with gold-accented grand halls, ceilings dripping with ornate chandeliers, and curlicue circular staircases spinning up into the stacks. Such opulent surroundings make it the latest selection for The Daily Beast’s monthly series, The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries. It has also been a witness to the roller coaster history of Budapest in the 20th century.

The palace was commissioned at the lush height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by Count Frigyes and Countess Krisztina Wenckheim to be one of their seven manor residences. Built by the Dresden-hailing architect Artúr Meining between 1886-1889, the style of the palace drew on the German Baroque style that was abundant in Saxony at the time, and the residence became a symbol of aristocratic splendor. With 48 rooms including private boudoirs, men’s smoking rooms, elaborate salons, and multiple ballrooms, Wenckheim Palace hosted nobility and aristocracy, including (according to legend) the Emperor Franz Joseph I.

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“The Wenckheim was the most elegant [palace], and also the biggest,” says Budapest-based historian Eniko Benes. “It’s like something the royal families have in other countries.” 

The aristocratic splendor is not concealed behind the stacks. The former Smoking Room is dominated by two curlicue spiral staircases that twist towards the carved oak panels of the ceiling. The reception room is ringed with long mirrors and spackled with glittering rococo decorations, candelabras, and chandeliers. (The palace is FULL of chandeliers.)  I passed through the Silver Salon, with its large 19th-century corner stoves covered in silver floral patterns, and the Small Ballroom decorated with a red marble fireplace, to reach the Grand Ballroom. The long hall is lined with mirrors and dripping with theatrical gold Rococo decorations, and now contains long wooden tables to work at. As I tucked myself into a dark leather chair, I imagined the creme de la creme of Hungarian aristocracy waltzing past me, the wisps of ghosts from another era.

“It was quite exceptional, because 500 people could gather together and dance, and there was a gallery for the orchestra,” says Benes.

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