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Secrets of the grandest Budapest hotel of them all

By Nathan Kay, CNN

Budapest (CNN) — For most of the last century, the story of the Gresham Palace closely mirrored that of the city in which it was built.

Built at the turn of the 20th century in prosperous Budapest, it quickly became the Hungarian capital’s hottest address. After enduring two world wars, it suffered neglect under communism before rising majestically, once again, in June 2004 to become one of the city’s, perhaps even central Europe’s, grandest hotels.

This summer, the building – one of the finest examples of Art Nouveau design in Budapest – is celebrating two decades in its most recent incarnation, as the Four Seasons Gresham Palace, a luxury hotel with panoramic views of the mighty Danube river.

The anniversary marks a new milestone in the preservation of this architectural gem that was both ahead of its time when it was built and very much a celebration of the intellectual golden age in which it emerged.

The Gresham Palace was conceived around the time that Budapest emerged as one of Europe’s largest cities after the 19th-century unification of affluent Buda on one side of the Danube with rapidly developing Pest on the other, and the absorption of nearby town Óbuda.

At the time, the Chain Bridge was the main link across the river, and so it was decided to build the palace on the Pest side to act as a kind of bricks-and-mortar gatekeeper.

“After the unification of Buda, Pest and Óbuda in 1873, Budapest became a big cosmopolitan city, a European capital,” József Laszlovszky, director of the cultural heritage studies program at Central European University, tells CNN. “Buda and Pest, for a long time, were only connected by the Chain Bridge, thus Széchenyi Square at the end of the bridge on the Pest side was one of the most prominent public spaces with Gresham Palace overlooking them both.”

Passionate affair

Widely adored today, Gresham’s construction in 1906 was also a story of affection – it’s also known locally as the “palace of hearts.” Heart motifs carved into the building were said to be added by the architect, Zsigmond Quittner, because of his love for a future tenant of the palace.

Another more probable tale says the hearts were inspired by a passionate affair between Countess Irma Széchenyi and Thomas Gresham, an Englishman behind the building’s construction. Gresham was said to have gifted Széchenyi a heart-shaped pendant which she asked to be woven into the fabric of the palace.

Quittner, who won a commission from the Gresham Life Assurance Company, to build the palace, delivered, along with the help of his associate József Vágó, a prime example of Art Nouveau architecture, infused with the avant-garde flair of Vienna and Paris of that era.

It was built to reflect the grandeur of the powerful Austro-Hungarian empire at the time, with lavish interiors and detailed ironwork. Renowned glass-painter and mosaic-maker Miksa Róth was also brought in to create ornate exterior glass mosaics and stained glass windows.

The palace was not only an architectural triumph but also a hub of technological innovation, featuring central heating and a pioneering dust extraction system. The building also boasted a T-shaped shopping arcade with a glass roof, a novel concept in Budapest in the early 1900s.

Upon its completion, Gresham Palace instantly became Budapest’s most sought-after address – as a place to live for the wealthy, and somewhere to shop and be seen in the exclusive boutiques and cafes on the ground floor.

Throughout its history, the palace served Budapest as a cultural hotspot, housing the famous Gresham-Venezia Café and the Pódium Cabaret, known for its satirical and sometimes politically daring performances. However, the Soviets’ siege of Budapest in 1944 left the building heavily damaged, and subsequent nationalization under communist rule in 1948 led to further decline.

Influential artists

“Gresham Palace and its coffee house were famous among artists and collectors,” says Laszlovszky. “The so-called Gresham-circle was an informal, but very important, artistic meeting place before World War II.

“Members of the circle, like Róbert Berény, Pál Pátzay, Béni Ferenczy, József Egry, István Szőnyi were painters or sculptors, the best artists of the period. Interestingly, they followed different artistic trends, but they were all influential people in the art life of the period.”

Despite suffering during wartime and enduring decades of neglect, the palace’s spirit seemed to survive intact until 2001, when luxury hotel group Four Seasons embarked on an ambitious three-year project to restore the building’s original splendor while integrating modern luxuries.

A team of leading Hungarian architects, interior designers and craftsmen was assembled for the project. Architect Gabor Kruppa was responsible for the complete reconstruction of the palace, alongside restoration artist Miklós Szenkirályi.

“It took thousands and thousands of hours for a unique team of highly trained masters from a variety of trades to cut this magnificent, Art Nouveau gem into a brilliant jewel,” Szenkirályi said at the time. “The Gresham Palace has been born again in wonderful unity, serving as a crown jewel of outstanding beauty that complements our magnificent Chain Bridge.”

‘Extraordinary history’

Since its reopening in 2004, the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace has provided visitors with a well-appointed sanctuary, offering 179 rooms and suites with panoramic views of the Danube or the cityscape. Its interiors, from the grand lobby to the spa atop, exude a regal air.

“Gresham Palace is one of Budapest’s most iconic buildings, and today, through its mere existence, unique location, and architecture, it shapes the image that the city presents to any tourist wishing to explore it,” Thibaut Drege, the hotel’s general Manager, tells CNN Travel.

“The fact that Four Seasons was able, 20 years ago, to renovate such a jewel reflects the extraordinary history that this building has undergone since its creation. Ultimately, it is this architecture that reflects an era when Budapest held a prominent position as a destination for high society Europeans. The city is now reclaiming this position, with growing interest notably from high-end travelers.”

As well as luxurious accommodation, guests and visitors of the hotel can also enjoy some of Budapest’s top dining and relaxation spots.

These include KOLLÁZS, a contemporary French brasserie which offers what’s arguably the grandest setting in Budapest. The venue serves local Tokaji wines, artisan cocktails and a menu crafted by Executive Chef Árpád Győrffy, one of the finalists at the prestigious Bocuse d’Or Hungary competition.

The hotel’s MÚZSA bar also offers artisan cocktails plus Asian food in a setting designed to transport visitors to Budapest’s golden age. The venue also has a cultural program with ballet evenings and live performances.

In a city renowned for its thermal baths, there’s inevitably also a luxurious spa, offering steam rooms, a relaxation pool and a “Hungarian Moor Mud” treatment, that’s said to be popular with Hollywood A-listers.

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