A mirror of 150 years history
Following several recommendations in different tourist guides I decided to invite my visitors to the Café Gerbeaud at Vörösmarty ter. Like hundreds of others we had just enjoyed the first summery Sunday strolling along the Danube and Vaci utca, Budapest’s fancy pedestrian shopping street.
Pictures: Victoria Harms, Budapest
The Café Gerbeaud is praised for its tasty coffee, home-made gateâus and fine chocolates. Since all chairs and tables in front of the impressive neo-classical façade had already been occupied we moved inside. The non-smoking room was crowded, too. Therefore we decided to take a table close to the huge windows across the wooden counter admiring the splendid old-fashioned, wooden interior with gilded metal beams, mirrors and chandeliers.
Like everybody else, who comes to the Gerbeaud for the first time, we took a look at the delicious looking gateâus and chocolates which are displayed at the counter until one of the waitresses hushed us impatiently away: Her colleague would come to our table to note our order. We sat down again and waited… and waited… and realized that we only heard German (in various accents) and English around us.
Only in the left-hand corner we saw two petites Mesdames who ordered tea and pogacsa in Hungarian. A bored-looking waitress appeared and addressed us immediately in English- ignoring our sorry attempts of “Jó nápot kivánok. Kerek…”
My short historical summary of the Gerbeaud had all three of us looking for some kind of metropolitan flair matching the elegant interior and the stories of editors and publishers of the 1900s, comparable to the vision of great Parisian cafés during the 1920’s. But in reality, we were just some more nosy tourists who frequent the Gerbeaud nowadays. However, the gateâus and the real hot chocolate reimburse us for our burst illusion of Budapest intellectual high society.
For a few minutes we are lost in enjoying chocolaty perfection of pastry. After one more cup of coffee which is traditionally served with a small glass of water the waitress – without even slightly changing her facial expression – brings our bill and while already turning away refuses our visa card…
An Urban villa
Nowadays, most guests start their Gerbeaud visit talking about – besides the great food and delicious ice-cream compostions – the white-wash five-story façade’s perfect architectural harmony overlooking Vörösmarty ter. Its axis symmetry, Corinthian pilasters, friezed beams, repetitive patterns and ornamentation identify the Gerbeaud-Ház as a typical neo-classical Pest urban villa of the 19th century.
However, there is more to this building. Its interesting story is worth noticing because it includes most historical landmarks of Budapest’s development during the last 150 years. The original building was created by the famous Hungarian 19th century architect Joszef Hild. In 1858 Henrik Kugler opened a little pastry shop on the side to Harmincad utca. Until today this so-called Little Gerbeaud has been preserved in its original state. During the 1870’s Kugler’s Kávé-Ház expanded into the Privorszky Coffee House next to it. In 1883 the Genevan pastry connoisseur Emile Gerbeaud purchased the confectionary shop and eventually turned it into one of Budapest’s most famous coffee-houses of that time.
Where editors and publishers go dining
Following the 1867 compromise establishing the Dual monarchy and the merging of Buda and Pest in 1873, the Hungarian capital boomed. Pest became the new political, economic and cultural centre where the upper strata resided in their new urban villas. Editors and publishers dined in great coffee-houses like the New York, Lukács (currently renovated) or Gerbeaud, where young striving writers used to approach them in order to present their work.
Thanks to the Millennium celebrations in 1896, Vörösmarty tér was granted the end station of the famous metro line 1, the first continental European subway. From 1911-1913, when the coffeehouse experienced its prime, the entire building was reconstructed by Sándor Fellner “who created the elegant metropolitan style of the ground floor by adding a frontage (…) made of fine material”1.??*
A further unqualified alteration during the 1930’s as well as the bombing during World War II though damaged the building. In the 1960’s – without having properly been restored yet – the building was stripped off all neo-classical ornaments. The new elite following the breakdown of the 1956 revolution considered the façade too “bourgeois”. In addition to that, the café’s name was changed from “capitalist” Gerbeaud to Vörösmarty. The monument of the romantic poet Mihály Vörösmarty (1800- 1855) in the middle of the square still reminds Hungarians today: “Be faithful to your country forever, oh Hungarians”.
Surviving Socialist rule
The Gerbeaud tradition, a combination of Swiss finesse and Austrian variety, though survived Socialist rule suffering only minor setbacks and soon experienced a revival. In 1981, the architect Gábor Gereben received the assignment to restore the façade, because several alterations had become inevitable. He renewed the neo-classical elegance of the façade similar to photos from 1912, the time of the Gerbeaud’s golden age.
In contrast to the original though, a central entrance at the axis and big windows on the ground floor which should be removed at sunshine were requested. As main material Gereben chose red granite. He recreated the torn-off neo-classical ornaments, reconstructed black bronze lamps and recast brackets to put all of this back on the façade. With the obvious difference between upper floors and the ground one, Gereben established the architectural uniqueness of the façade. At night it is nicely illuminated emphasizing the architectural harmony to full extent.
The Gerbeaud Empire
By now Gerbeaud has become a prospering enterprise, besides the Little Gerbeaud and the Gerbeaud cukrászda it now also runs a Gerbeaud pub and a Gerbeaud restaurant.
Like many other places in Budapest, the Gerbeaud-Ház indicates the severe attempts to create metropolitan flair, the impression of prosperity and the image of upper-class culture. Budapest tries hard to establish a reputation of a true European capital. Obviously, the economic force of tourism strengthens the city’s efforts during transformation.
After a long period of neglect, many 19th century central buildings are now restored rediscovering Budapest’s architectural treasures in order to attract more and more tourists. Knowing some of the buildings’ histories often helps to understand the strong changes which Budapest has experienced lately, especially since 1990.
Most Pest coffee-houses represent the latest developments during transition and Hungary’s hopes in tourism. The Gerbeaud as a telling example has become a booming business again, too, unfortunately though on the expense of good service and its Hungarian clientele. Besides the pastry’s quality and the architecture, the Gerbeaud unfortunately is about to lose its unique flair.