2016. April 12.

Gödöllő and the Palace of Sissi

Gödöllő is a town situated in Hungary, about 30 km northeast from the outskirts of Budapest. Its population is 34,396. Gödöllő is home to the Szent István University, the main education institute of agriculture in Hungary. The palace at Gödöllő was originally built for the aristocratic Grassalkovich family; later Franz Joseph Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary and his Elisabeth ("Sisi") had their summer residence here. Communism saw much of the town´s original one-story housing leveled to make way for the blocks of flats which continue to dominate the town centre, as well as much of the Royal Forest and Elisabeth´s Park leveled for industrial use. 

The earliest available written data on the property rights in Gödöllő date from the early 14th century. At that time Gödöllő was separated from the community of Besnyő which had a larger population. The settlement was then owned by families of the lesser nobility. By the middle of the 15th century Gödöllő developed into a village. After the disastrous defeat at Mohács in 1526, the invading Turkish troops occupied Buda and then Gödöllő, too. As a result of this, the population decreased to merely a few families. No data on property rights during the 160-year-long Turkish rule remain.

By the mid-17th century, Gödöllő again became a village. Its proprietor, Ferenc Hamvay, was the first owner who resided in the locality, in his country house in the village centre. At that time the village consisted of a few houses with walls of wattle and daub and thatched roofs in addition to the mansion and the reform church. A decisive turn in the life of Gödöllő was brought about by Antal Grassalkovich I.  (1694-1771), one of the greatest noblemen of 18th-century Hungary. Grassalkovich, born of an impoverished family of the lesser nobility, began his career as a lawyer in 1715. A year later he was already working with the "Hofkammer" (the Royal Chamber, a body of the Habsburg financial administration in the 16-8th centuries). In 1727 he became president of the Commission of New Acquisitions (Neoaquistica Commissio), dealing with the revision and arrangement of the chaotic ownership rights after the Turkish rule.

The son of Antal Grassalkovich I., Antal Grassalkovich I.(1734-1794), who was raised to the rank of prince, cared little for the estate. He leased out the properties one after the other, liquidated the household in Gödöllő and moved to Vienna. Following his death, the estate, heavily charged with debts, was inherited by his son, Antal Grassalkovich III. He continued to increase the debts and died without offspring, hence the properties were inherited on the female line. At that time, the mansion house came to be the scene of an important political event. In the course of the spring campaign of the 1848-48 War of Independence, the Hungarian soldiers gained a victory in Isaszeg on 6 April 1849. After this, Lajos Kossuthand his generals set up quarters in the mansion house of Gödöllő. Here a war council was held where the idea to dethrone the Habsburgs and to fight for Hungarian independence emerged.

In 1850 a banker, György Sina, purchased the estate of Gödöllő. He, and later his son, rarely stayed in Gödöllő; they considered the transaction merely a capital investment and in 1864 sold the whole of the property to a Belgian bank. The Hungarian state bought it back from this bank in March 1867 and gave it, together with the mansion house, to Francis Joseph I. and Empress Elisabeth of Austria ("Sissi") as a coronation gift. From that time on, the royal family stayed in Gödöllő mainly in spring and autumn, and this resulted in a significant upswing in the life of the town.

The northern railway line, for instance, contrary to the original plan, passes close to Gödöllő because the royal summer resort was there. The gas factory, destined to produce the gas needed for the railway station and the royal mansion house, was accomplished by 1874. The number of artisans and small shopkeepers increased. Gödöllő at the turn of the century also wrote its name into the history book of Hungarian art. From 1901 to 1920 the only organized artists colony of the period of the Hungarian Secession was working here. In autumn 1918 important political events again occurred in the mansion house. It was here that King Charles IV recognized the resignation of the Hungarian government In those days, several politicians turned up in the mansion, among others Mihály Károlyi who, after some discussions which ended in failure, was designated prime minister by the victorious revolution.

In 1919 the military general staff of the Hungarian Soviet Republic had their headquarters in the mansion house. From 1920 on there was a time similar to that of the king in the life of Gödöllő since the mansion house became a seat of the governor, Miklós Worthy This era, lasting almost two and a half decades, influenced favorably the development of the village. This manifested itself in the ordered nature of the settlement and also in the relatively higher level of public supply. After World War II the development of the community took a new turn.

Soviet troops were stationed in part of the mansion house, while in a larger part there was a social welfare home. In contrast to its earlier character as a summer resort, industry started in Gödöllő.  The first step in this direction was the building of the Ganz Factory of Electric Measuring Instruments in 1950, which was followed by other industrial plants. In the same year, the University of Agricultural Sciences moved into the buildings of the closed-down institute of the Premonstratensian.This meant the completion of the community´s character as an agrarian centre and resulted in a further expansion of the network of agricultural institutions linked to the university. On 1 January 1966, Gödöllő was promoted to the rank of a town. The present face of the town began to take shape at that time. The old rows of peasant houses disappeared one after the other, giving place to housing estates and public institutions.

Political changes which came about at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s brought about significant changes in the life of Gödöllő, too. Some of the industrial projects settled here in the 1950s closed, while others which were viable were privatized. The number of industrial and service units in private ownership increased and quickly transformed the appearance of the town. The influence of the changes also made itself felt in education. The church schools restarted their activities. In 1989 the Capuchins and the Salvator Sisters received back their monasteries; in 1990 the  Premonstratensians returned to Gödöllő and, after having opened their school, built their church in 1993. In 1990, after the departure of the Soviet troops, the process of clearing the almost ruined Grassalkovich mansion house started, which was essential if the restoration program begun in 1985 was to be accelerated. As a result of this, the mansion house may, after a few years, receive guests visiting the town in its full splendor.

During the 2011 Hungarian EU Presidency, the informal ministerial meetings were held in the Royal Palace because the government didn´t want the delegation´s moving to paralyze the traffic in Budapest. The main venues were the Baroque Palace´s riding school and the reconstructed stables.

The palace is one of the most important, largest monuments of Hungarian palace architecture. Its builder, Count Antal Grassalkovich I, was a typical figure of the regrouping Hungarian aristocracy of the 18th century. He was a royal September, president of the Hungarian Chamber, and confidant of Empress Maria Theresa (1740-1780). The construction began around 1733, under the direction of András Mayerhoffer, a Salzburg builder.

The palace has a double U shape, and is surrounded by an enormous park. The building underwent several enlargements and modifications during the 18th century, and its present shape was established in the time of the third generation of the Grassalkovich family. By then the building had eight wings, and besides the residential section, it contained a church, a theatre, a riding-hall, a hothouse, a greenhouse for flowers and an orangery. After the male side of the Grassalkovich family died out in 1841, the palace had several owners, and in 1867 it was bought for the Crown.


Parliament designated it the resting residence of the Hungarian monarch. This state lasted until 1918, thus Francis Joseph and later Charles IV and the royal family spent several months in Gödöllő every year. During this period the palace became the symbol of independent Hungarian statehood, and as a residential centre it had a political significance of it own. Empress Elisabeth especially loved staying in Gödöllő, where the Hungarian personnel and neighborhood of the palace always warmly welcomed her. Following her tragic death, a memorial park adjoining the upper garden was built. The period of the royal decades also brought enlargements and modifications. The suites were made more comfortable, a marble stable and cart-house were built. The riding hall was remodeled.

Between the two World Wars, the palace served as the residence for Regent Miklós Horty. No significant building took place during this period, apart from an air-raid shelter in the southern front garden. After 1945 the palace, like many other buildings in Hungary, fell into decay. Soviet and Hungarian troops used the building. Some of the beautifully decorated rooms were used for an old people´s home, and the park was divided into smaller plots of land. The protection of the palace as a historical monument started in 1981, when the National Board for Monuments launched its palace project.

The most important tasks of preservation began in 1986 and were completed in the end of 1991. During this time the palace was partly emptied. By 1990 the Soviet troops left the southern wing, and the old people´s home was closed down. During this time the roof of the riding hall and the stable wing was reconstructed, and the façade of the building, the trussing of the central wings, and the double cupola were renovated. Research was carried out in the archives and in the building, and thus the different building periods of the monument were defined. Painted walls and rooms were uncovered which revealed the splendor of the 18-19th centuries. Architectural structures were discovered, and so were the different structures of the park.

The utilization of the main front wings of the palace was designed as a clear and well-developed architectural project. The first floor´s 23 rooms (nearly 1000 sq. m.) accommodate the interior exhibition. The emphasis was laid on the revival of the atmosphere of the royal period and the introduction of the time of the Grassalkovich family. Reconstruction is the principle of the interiors completed so far, creating the state as it was around the 1880s. One of the most striking features of the Empress Elisabeth Exhibition is its historical accuracy.

The painted lobby and the Grand Hall on the first floor are also used for various programs, with a link to the program organization and gastronomic activity unit on the ground floor. Right before the double drive there is a car park for the visitors, suitable for 60 cars and 5 buses at a time. The visitor service units and the connected infrastructure are situated on the ground floor: cloak-room, ticket office, tourist information centre, toilets (also for the disabled), and payphone. Various retail units are found on the northern side, including a souvenir centre and a photo studio.

On the southern side is a coffee shop and several function rooms. The northern front garden, at the main façade with its so-called Italian bastions and walkways, was reconstructed with historical authenticity in 1998. The cheerful inner court is a resting place, where various outdoor programs are held. The 26-hectare English park, which is open to the public every year, was declared a nature reserve in 1998. Its botanical curiosities are much appreciated by the visitors. Riding competitions are held in the park annually.

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