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.
In the heart of Central Europe at the dawn of the 20th century, the palace was doomed to exist in interesting times. World War One crumpled the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and in the tumult after its fall, a rogue Communist state calling itself the Hungarian Soviet Republic briefly seized power. (Very briefly—its rule lasted only 133 days.) During this time, the Hungarian Socialists acquisitioned use of Wenckheim Palace, eventually calling it the Museum of the Communist Proletariat. Once the Socialists surrendered to the Romanians, the Royal Romanian Army occupied Budapest and took over the building as a command center. They eventually left, along with some of the original tapestries from the reception room.
Throughout all of these hot-potato power juggles, the Wenckheim family continued to technically own the palace. After the Countess died in 1926, though, the family sold the building to the city of Budapest, and Wenckheim Palace began its second chapter as a library.
The Metropolitan Ervin Szabo Library, named after the Library’s first head librarian, existed in some form since 1904, but WWI had stymied plans to build an expansive space for the institution, and the unused schoolhouse it was temporarily housed in was uncomfortably small for a city library. When the city acquired Wenckheim Palace in 1931, it solved the library’s size problems; the entire operation could be moved inside the palace. There was a punctilious attention to detail in retrofitting the palace, with card catalogues and furniture all designed to fit into the preexisting aesthetic of the palace. The attention to detail paid off. Contemporary newsreel footage from the time gushed, “What an uplifting experience to step from the profanity of the street into this temple-like palace of books.”
The library would only have a few years of quiet existence before the world convulsed again. Hungary allied with Germany and the Axis at the beginning of World War II, but the brunt of the war’s damage to the city didn’t arrive until the 50-day Siege of Budapest that began in December 1944. The Germans and Soviets fought for control of the city, and at various points both used Wenckheim Palace for shelter. A parachute delivery for German troops shattered a glass ceiling, letting the winter snow inside, and the Germans tempted fate by parking their ammunition vehicles in the yard of the palace. Luckily, none of them blew up. The bronze chandelier and an intricate wooden spiral staircase in the Smoking Room were damaged before the palace was vacated. The siege laid waste to the city, with 80% of the buildings and all seven of the city’s bridges destroyed before the Soviets managed to push the Germans out of Budapest, and nearly 38,000 people died.
The war ended soon after, but political turmoil in Budapest did not. At the end of WWII, Hungary was firmly behind the Iron Curtain and in the Soviet sphere of influence, ruled by Hungarian Socialist Workers’ Party beginning in 1949. But resistance percolated under the surface, and in October of 1956, student protests in the cities of Szeged and Pecs spread to Budapest, including the area around the Ervin Szabo Library. The student protests ballooned in a 20,000-person revolution on October 23, with participants demanding greater rights and political freedom and toppling a statue of Stalin in the city center. In retaliation, the secret police fired on the crowd and Soviet tanks entered Budapest on October 24. Clashes escalated, with protesters throwing Molotov cocktails at Soviet tanks and defacing Communist symbols, until the Soviet forces decisively took the city on November 4.
In the clashes between protesters and Soviet forces, the Palace Library was severely damaged, with cannon projectiles hitting the salon and destroying walls, large mirrors, rare books, and library catalogues. By the end, the library was wounded and more than 1500 people were dead, with half of them under the age of 30. A massive wave of refugees fled Hungary after the Soviet crackdown.
The Ervin Szabo Library remained that way until 1964, when the local authorities undertook an effort at restoration. The Eastern Collection turned out to be unsalvageable and was mostly dismantled, and overzealous restorationists took down a large number of the damaged ornaments on the external wall that could have been repaired.
Otherwise, the restoration work during the Communist era helped maintain the integrity and use of the building until a more in-depth restoration could be undertaken, which wasn’t until 1998. At that point, it became clear that the original Wenckheim Palace was not large enough to contain the modern library that was necessary at the dawn of the 21st century, so a new library was built around the original palace. The new wing is a deliberately contemporary design, meant to both contrast with and fade into the aesthetics of the palace. The carved twisted staircases of the Smoking Room are echoed by minimal metal spiral staircases in the new wing room next door, hinting at the magnificent space while staying strictly utilitarian. The reconstruction design has been lauded, receiving the Europa Nostra Award and FIABCI World Prix d’Excellence Award, and the space now holds 1.1 million volumes and 1000 visitors.
Though the library is temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, visitors and library members were able previously to work and read in Count Wenckheim’s smoking room, in the Silver Salon, or, as I chose to, in the Grand Ballroom. Local Hungarians could come to study for exams immersed in a hidden gem of everyday opulence.
“In Budapest we don’t really have so many interiors which survived, not even from the 19th century,” says historian Benes. “That’s why it’s very unique: it’s so spectacular, and it’s also because it survived.”