There are plans that until realized sometimes really try the patience of the people who dream them up. But when creating something excellent, time is needed for precise planning and quality work. Sometimes this could mean many years – especially if said dream pertains to a building on the Danube waterfront. You would need several thousand workers, Hungarian and Italian stonemasons, several tons of granite, some Carrara marble and an excellent architect, who will stand fast when faced with adversity. The Fővámpalota (or Chief Customs Palace) was built in the Neo-Renaissance historical style, and is the result of just such a grand vision.
Miklós Ybl was commissioned in 1869 to design a customs house to effectively manage increased trade traffic in Budapest. At first Schopper-Platz (today’s Kossuth Square) was chosen as the building’s location for its proximity to the commercial quarter in Pest, but the Construction Commission halted work on the project due to concerns related to city planning. They did so even though Ybl had had an impressive résumé by then, completing such projects as the National Horse Racing Track (it is the Hungarian Radio’s building today), the Festetics and Károly Palaces in Pollack Mihály Square, the apartment house of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, the Parish Church of St. Francis of Assisi in Bakáts Square, the Chain Bridge Palace, the First National Savings Bank of Pest, not to mention he was the one who revised the plans for St. Stephen’s Basilica in Central Budapest.
Miklós Ybl (MTI Photo/Reproduction)
The intervention of Prime Minister Gyula Andrássy was needed for construction to continue at a different location, on a riverside plot near the Sótér – today’s Fővám Square. Ybl had two weeks to create a new design which he later on needed to revise again during the so-called expropriation procedure... The third and final version was officially accepted during the summer of 1870. Béla Ney, the technical supervisor of the project regularly wrote about land work done at the construction in the Vasárnapi Újság (a weekly newspaper), and also published a long-term vision for the Fővámház.
The Fővámház in Pest – Hungary and the World / 1871.12.10 7. year, no. 50. 648-649. pp. / Zsigmond Pollak’s engraving based on an illustration by Lajos Rauscher
The construction was led by Ignác Wechselmann, a man of Prussian-Silesian descent, who as the construction manager of various other Ybl buildings had formed a strong professional friendship with the architect. At first 400-500 workers took part in the project. The required materials were brought in by boat, and unloaded onto the newly completed waterfront. The best companies and craftsmen of the age worked on this gigantic enterprise – among others the Schlick Iron Foundry, which had created the world’s first low-floor electric tram, and the Neuschloss Company which constructed several buildings for the Millennium Exhibition later on. The railings and candelabras of the inner courtyard were made at the workshop headed by Gyula Jungfer, in one of the most important locksmith workshops in the city. Coincidentally this was also the workshop were metal artworks decorating the Museum of Applied Arts, the Gresham Palace or the Parliament were also made. Such excellent designers guaranteed an aesthetic quality that would stand the test of time. With a floor area of 9500 square meters, the building decorated using both Italian and Viennese styles has an air of solemnity and dignity, and was completed on May 1st, 1874, when Ybl became the construction manager of the Várkert Bazaar and Kiosk and the Hungarian State Opera House. This was also the time when Pest, Buda and Óbuda joined together to form Budapest, which set out on the road toward becoming a world famous metropolis.
Ferencz József Bridge on a postcard
If we look up at the façade facing the Danube, we see sculptures by Ágost Sommer: various depictions of railroads, steamboats, gods symbolizing the fine arts, allegories of virtue and ancient Hungarian trades. Reliefs representing different parts of the world help us orient ourselves, functioning as a kind of last-century GPS. A system of cellars were built under the customs house, with four tunnels leading to the Danube – these could be closed with sluices. According to legend railway tracks used to lead into the building, and four separate offices were based there: a Customs Office, the Financial Directorate of Pest, the Central Directorate of Commercial Affairs and the Central Office of Mining Affairs.
Tram at Fővám tér / Ákos Endre Varga: Lost Tracks
The Fővámpalota was a military support point during the Second World War because of its strong walls and ideal location, which is also why it sustained serious damage during the war. There were two attempts made at reconstruction between 1946 and 1948. After the official decision was made that it would be rebuilt as the home of the independent Hungarian University of Economics, its inner structure was redesigned to include a Main Hall, smaller halls for lectures and seminars, and a library as well.
A new stairwell was built on the side facing Sóház Street. Constructed by the Institute for Public Buildings, the new building can be seen a few meters nearby under Fővám Square 13-15. At the COOL point there visitors can get to know how the educational strategy of the university changed over time. You can also find more information about the reconstruction of the building on the Corvinus University of Budapest website.
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