Once a world-famous factory in Budapest, now a hardly known company - The Hungarian Optical Works

Hungarian version of the article: Budapest világhírű gyára volt, ma már alig van nyoma az egykori Magyar Optikai Műveknek

Written by: Péter Bodó

January 19, 2022 at 10:00 AM

Just 100 years ago, in 1922, the Süss Nándor Institute of Precision Mechanics and Optics PLC was named after its founder. It was the plant which later became one of the largest and world-famous factory in Budapest. The factory, which has been operating under the name Hungarian Optical Works since 1939, once dominated the area around Csörsz Street, but today, only the name MOM, and the community centre reminds us to the former factory.

The German Ferdinand Suess founded the Mechanical Faculty of the University of Cluj-Napoca in 1876, the importance of which was also recognised by Minister of Culture Ágoston Trefort, and at his request, the manager of the company, called Nándor Süss in Hungarian, set up a workshop in 1884 in Mozsár Street, 6th District, to train precision mechanics. Its name at the time was the State-Aided Mechanical Workshop, so it was a state-run institution.

Ferdinand Suess (1848–1921) was born in Marburg, Germany (Source: MOM Memorial Foundation)

In 1891, it moved to Alkotás Road that was in the 1st District at the time, into a Gothic-style, Romantic building. It was here that they began manufacturing their most famous product, the Eötvös Pendulum. Baron Loránd Eötvös commissioned Süss's company from 1889, as he also obtained the instruments needed for his experiments from them. The invention has made it possible to detect raw materials hidden deep in the soil, among other things, so that it has become very popular in oil exploration and mining. It also won a prestigious award at the 1900 Paris World's Fair.

The company's first building in Csörsz Street (Source: MOM Memorial Foundation)

In the same year, the state support for the workshop completely disappeared, so Süss reorganised the plant into its own private company, which changed its name to Nándor Süss's Precizio Mechanical Institute. It moved again in 1905, this time to its final location, Csörsz Street, where it operated for nearly a century and expanded. Its first building was built inside the street, it had a T floor plan so that its horizontal wing fell on the front of Csörsz Street. Because it was a factory building, the facade did not carry any special aesthetic value, the windows were lined up in the same rhythm and density on each level. Its designer is unknown, but there is a sketch of the building in the National Archives, which was signed by the company manager himself, so the basic idea came from him.

In World War I, it also produced various products for the army, but towards the end it struggled with significant financial problems due to the narrowing of export opportunities. Because of this, in 1918 its owner transformed the company into a joint stock company, Süss retained only the technical control in his own hands. Partly the reorganisation and partly the acquisition of a license for optical glass grinding boosted the plant again, so production capacity had to be expanded and new buildings needed.

Gyula Sándy's plan for the new wing (Source: Hungarian Museum of Architecture)

Gyula Sándy, one of the most sought-after architects of the period, also made plans for this, with which he would have created a closed courtyard, a four-tract building complex. The facade of the new wings was also drawn by Sándy according to the industrial function, he did not use ornaments. The architect, on the other hand, was an expert in carpentry, so he also planned a steep, high roof in this work as well. The plan did not materialise, and in 1927, according to Dezső Freud's idea, the building was extended with floors constructed on top. Unfortunately, the founder did not live to see this, as he died tragically suddenly on 1 April 1921, he was hit by a tram.

However, the history of the factory did not end there, in fact: the production of optical glasses started in the same year, so the company was renamed Süss Nándor Precision Mechanical and Optical Institute in 1922, exactly a hundred years ago. 

The modern building built in 1936, the Archer can be seen on the left (Source: MOM Memorial Foundation)

The ownership structure of the company changed in 1930: a large number of shares were bought by the companies Zeiss and Goerz, as well as by the Ministry of Defense. They received more and more orders, and to be able to meet them, they began to buy adjacent plots to build new buildings. In 1936, Ferenc Mengl designed a six-storey block to the east of the old building, in which explosion-proof clockwork igniters that could be mounted in anti-aircraft grenades were assembled. These were interestingly ordered by the British army, and the construction of the Mengl building was also started with English money. At the top was a six-metre-high artificial stone statue symbolising the work going on inside: Erzsébet Haich's statue depicts a male figure shooting an arrow to the sky. The Archer became so popular that it was later chosen as the factory logo.

A copy of the former Archer statue, the work of József Kampfl, was erected in 2009 near the former factory (Photo: Balázs Both/pestbuda.hu)

To the east of the old building, a single-storey, flat-roofed building was erected as early as the 1920s, the sides of which were formed by an almost continuous row of windows, interrupted only by the supporting pillars in regular rhythm. And in 1942, a building that was also modern in style was erected even further east. But the first building could not be left out of the development either, it was also remodelled in 1939 according to the plans of Ferenc Mengl. The individual buildings were otherwise lettered, the first building from 1905 was, of course, marked A, and the Archer statue shot from the top of Building F into the sky. The factory, located in a wonderful place, also tried to fit into nature by laying a grass carpet between the buildings and even making room for water pools.

The company's buildings around 1929 (Source: MOM Memorial Foundation)

In World War II, the Ministry of Defence only licensed the manufacture of military equipment. This, of course, also brought with it the hostile bombings in which all the buildings in the factory were damaged. These were restored, and in 1946, production resumed. The owner, on the other hand, was already the government of the Soviet Union at the time, as the German-owned shares had been transferred to it under the Potsdam Agreement made a year earlier. As a result, the company was run by a Soviet director until 1952, when it returned to Hungarian hands, to the Ministry of Metallurgy and Machinery under an interstate agreement.

Building F in the centre of the picture also suffered severe damage during World War II (Source: Fortepan/No.: 217693)

From the 1950s onwards, in addition to the factory buildings, social, cultural and sports facilities were established, so the plant was completely filled the plot bordered by Alkotás Road, Dolgos Street, Nagy Jenő Street and Csörsz Street. A housing estate was built on Németvölgyi Road for the workers and their families, and a kindergarten and nursery school were opened in the old villa buildings along Nagy Jenő Street. On Alkotás Road, even the school buildings built at the turn of the century were mostly visited by the children of the factory workers, and the company's own workshop also operated here. In 1968, a sports complex was established south of the factory.

The MOM Culture Centre nowadays (Photo: Balázs Both/pestbuda.hu)

According to the plans of Károly Dávid, the MOM Culture Centre was built between 1950 and 1951, and in accordance with the socialist mentality, the factory workers also took part in the construction with their social work and the purchase of brick tickets. However, the appearance of the building has a relatively low level of the mandatory socialist realism, and can be called a more modern style. In its own time, this was very rare, so it was later declared a monument. Its most characteristic part is the cylindrical block of buildings covered with natural stone, which is divided upwards by a row of arcades ending in a so-called segmented arch.

The company's office building on the corner of Alkotás Road (Source: Fortepan/No.: 206969)

However, the MOM office building was built in 1956 in a classic socialist style. The five-storey building was erected on the corner of Alkotás Road and Csörsz Street, and its purpose was to ensure the administrative tasks of the factory, which has grown to a large extent and already has rural sites (including Dunaújváros, Mátészalka, Zalaegerszeg). In the 1960s, two more floors were added. Until the end of the 1980s, new factory and warehouse buildings were occasionally built, and on the four-hectare industrial estate, smaller and larger halls almost touched each other. In 1964, for example, a sewage treatment plant, in 1965 a varnishing warehouse, in 1967 a glass warehouse, in 1979 a storage facility for hazardous materials, in 1987 a metal cutting plant, but even a smaller hotel was established at the dawn of the regime change.

Location of individual buildings on the site in the 1990s (Source: MOM Memorial Foundation)

Expansions and transformations have also taken place in the previously built blocks, which was also required for the production of increasingly complex and sensitive instruments. The top level of Building F, people could only enter after dressing in and disinfection, as they were working with such delicate technology. The IK building also housed a room that could be cooled to minus 50 degrees, where special military equipment for Soviet exports could be tested.

Postcard of Hungarian Optical Works (Source: Hungaricana.hu)

With the end of the Cold War, military orders almost disappeared, and the mass influx of cheap foreign products after the change of regime put the company in an inescapable position. The Hungarian Optical Works were divided into several pieces, and in 1997 most of the buildings were demolished. In 2001, a residential park and shopping centre called MOM Park was opened.

Fortunately, the Culture Centre has survived, and was beautifully renovated between 2009 and 2011, and offers rich cultural programs not only to the residents of the 12th District, but to the whole of Budapest. The once world-famous company is preserved only by the initials: MOM.

Cover photo: The modern building of the factory handed over in 1936, with the Archer statue on top (Photo: Balázs Both/pestbuda.hu)


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