Previously ORCZY HOUSE
Károly Boulevard 17. / Madách Square


The plot on Ország Thoroughfare (today Károly Boulevard) was purchased in 1728 by the Orczy family, one of the most important aristocratic families in Hungary’s political and public life in the 18th century. Baron István Orczy, who had acquired the family fortune and its title of nobility, left the building to his grandson, József Orczy, who founded the first public park in Pest, the Orczy Garden. On October 8, 1795, József Orczy purchased the adjacent corner plot on Király Street and the building on the plot from Anna Mayerhoffer, daughter of architect András Mayerhoffer.

At the time, there was a restaurant operating out of the building called König von Engelland. Later, the street was named after this restaurant (the Hungarian word király means king, like the German word König). The restaurant was frequented by merchants and vendors from the national markets on what today is Deák Square, who also used storage spaces in the buildings for their wares. At the time, Jews were only allowed into the city when the national markets were open. On the eastern side of Deák Square there was a "Jewish market" next to the Orczy House. Baron Orczy had the building on the National Thoroughfare and the neighboring Mayerhoffer House joined with the help of architect Lőrinc Zofahl, thereby creating a long zigzag block of buildings that from then on was known as the Orczy House. It was the second largest building in Pest. After József Orczy’s death, his heirs used the building as a tenement house. On April 15 1796, the Jewish community of Pest rented a space in the enormous building that was suitable for use as a synagogue. A separate room for women was opened in 1805 next to the synagogue. In 1820, a larger synagogue was opened on the upper floor of the building. It was called the “Grosse Synagoge.” It served as a place of prayer for the Jewish community until the demolition of the building in 1936. It was the first synagogue in Budapest in which an organ was used, following the remodeling of the “Chor-Temple” in 1851.

Because of the prohibition on the purchase of real estate by Jews, which was in force until 1840 (it had been in force since 1783, when Emperor Joseph II had issued the so-called Edict of Tolerance), Jews were compelled to rent their dwellings. The Orczy House, which at the time was the largest tenement house in the city (with 48 separate apartments and 142 living rooms), thus became a kind of gateway to the “Jewish quarter.” This simple, sparingly adorned building was the first stop for Jews seeking to settle in Pest and thus also a center of Jewish commerce. According to rumors and gossip, by renting out the apartments, business and storage spaces, and cellars of the enormous building (which had three courtyards and later grew with the addition of another story), the family earned one gold coin every hour for decades. In fact, they brought in more than this, at least according to data from 1817. The Orczy barons were content with their Jewish tenants and the money they were able to earn by renting out residential and commercial spaces, so towards the end of the 1820s they entrusted architect Lőrinc Zofahl with the task of making additions to the enormous building, while also taking into account the needs of the Jewish community in the process. With the help of Israel Wahrmann, the first rabbi of the Jewish community of Pest, they persuaded the leaders of the community to accept a provision according to which all of the Jewish communities in the neighborhood had to move into the Orczy House. In 1829, the second story of the building was constructed. The work began with the renovation of the Great Synagogue on the upper floor, where conservative Jews went to worship, while the Chor-Temple that was built in the larger courtyard in 1830 welcomed Jews influenced by the Enlightenment (Haskalah). The Jewish community of the Orczy House emphasized that both the Grand Synagogue and the Chor-Temple belonged to the entire religious community. It was important to them not to let the two groups disunite.

By the 1820s, a community had come to flourish in the building, which was outside of the city walls but only a few steps from the marketplaces, that resembled a small city of its own. Everything that was necessary as part of Jewish religious life could be found within its walls. There were innumerable stores, storage spaces, butcher’s stalls, ritual baths, restaurants, and coffee shops, as well as two houses of prayer and even a tombstone engraver, and the building, which came to resemble a bazaar in the East, was always thronging with people coming and going, including residents, shoppers, merchants, and people tending to their business affairs. Since the owner of the König von Engelland restaurant had acquired the right to sell coffee (which was a right held by the locale, not the individual owner), in 1825 the Orczy Coffee Shop opened on the side of the building that looked onto the National Thoroughfare. It became the most frequented business in the Orczy House. “Billions changed hands,” wrote 20th-century Hungarian author Zsigmond Móricz, one of the regulars in the coffee shop. Numerous transactions were made. Deals were reached in the coffee shop involving the corn exchange and trade in wines, and people even bought and sold private tutors under its low arches.

In the first half of the 19th century, the Orczy House was the site of every major event involving the Jewish community, making Pest the new center of Jewish life in Hungary, after Buda and Óbuda. In 1902, dr. Károly Morzsányi, the representative in parliament of Erzsébetváros, suggested the construction of a boulevard between Király Street and Dob Street for “public health, transportation, and aesthetic reasons.” In practice, it would have destroyed what today it the Jewish quarter of Budapest. The plan was never implemented in its entirety because of the outbreak of the First and Second World Wars. The principal motivations for city development and planning were allegedly the improvement of air quality and transportation, but in his call for reform in a 1930 publication entitled Budapesti riport (Budapest report) Leó Szendi sheds light on other considerations: “There are ghettos that offer excellent places of study for writers, poets, painters, and sculptors. In the ghettos in Prague, Lemberg, Tarnów, and Warsaw one finds ethnography, poetry, tradition, and history. In the ghetto in Pest there is only awful filth and an awful stench. The population of this ghetto is comprised for the most part of individuals who have cast aside their distinctive racial and national character, but who cannot be Hungarian, now or ever. And we don’t even reflect on the idea that they might be. We must use every tool to rid the city of this mark of shame. The capital should take possession, with slow, gradual efforts, of the part of Erzsébetváros between Károly Boulvevard, Király Street, Erzsébet Boulvevard, and Dob Street. Having gotten control of this part of the city, at a rapid pace we must begin the necessary construction that will be done following the demolition.” The implementation of these plans began in 1936 with the demolition of the Orczy House. The envisioned development, however, was never completed, both because of lack of funds and because of the World Wars. Thus, many of the exquisite buildings of the Jewish quarter survived these kinds of efforts to rid the city of this vital slice of its vibrant past.

One of the distinctive features of the Madách House, which was erected where the Orczy House once stood, is that each section is the work of a different architect, yet from the outside it nonetheless seems uniform, since all of the architects had to follow the Neo-Baroque façade designs of university professor Gyula Wälder. Because of its size, the Madách House is multifunctional, much as the Orczy House once was, but it is hardly as complex or meaningfully symbolic as the earlier edifice was. Of the businesses, coffee shops, and institutions beneath the arcade of the tenement building designed by Wälder, one of the most important is the István Örkény Theater. Originally, Gedeon Gerlóczy had planned to have a movie theater on the three lower floors of the building, but the leaseholder was not granted the necessary permission, so the idea of transforming the movie theater into a traditional theater was raised. István Károlyi, the twenty-one year-old nephew of Mihály Károlyi, founded a theater in the building with the help of Count Géza Földessy. The first performance in the Madách Theater was held on November 29, 1940. During the first season, the theater company of the National Theater also held performances on the new stage. István Károlyi and his uncle asked Andor Pünkösti to serve as the manager of the theater. On September 19, 1941, the Madách Theater held its first performance under Pünkösti’s management. Between 1941 and 1944, the fate of the theater was closely intertwined with political developments. Since the theater was a private undertaking, the state exerted less influence on it than on the state theaters. Pünkösti’s anti-war, anti-fascist mentality made the theater a kind of last refuge for the independent-minded citizenry of Budapest. After the occupation of the country by the German army on March 19 1944, the theater was closed and the space was turned over to the Arrow Cross Theater. Pünkösti committed suicide. From April 1944 until the end of the year, a man named Lajos Cselle managed a fascist theater in the space. Six months after the end of the war, premises were made available to Ödön Palasovszky, one of the leading figures of the Hungarian avant-garde and activist theater. In early 1946, it became the theater of the College of Dramatic Arts. With an independent company of actors, it gave young dramatic artists a change to present and explore their talents. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a time of rapid nationalization, the theater underwent numerous changes of affiliation. For a time it was made part of the National Theater. It then became the center of the State Rural Theater and was used first and foremost as a rehearsal space. In 1954, it was made part of the Madách Theater, becoming the Madách Repertory Theater. The theater has hosted premiers of contemporary works from other countries and has inspired new dramas by Hungarian playwrights. It also contributed meaningfully to the preservation of cabaret art and traditions in Hungary by hosting evenings with Géza Hofi. In 2004, it was given the name István Örkény Theater, and it has functioned ever since as an independent, stand-alone theater.

See the artist: Levente Csordás 

By Zita Mara Vadasz