The German Theatre in Pest, once the largest theatre in the city, burned down 175 years ago

Hungarian version of the article: 175 éve égett le a Pesti Német Színház, a város egykor legnagyobb teátruma

Written by: Csaba Domonkos

February 4, 2022 at 9:00 AM

The side of today's Vörösmarty Square facing the Danube has been lined with many buildings over the past 200 years, the first being the German Theatre in Pest [Pesti Német Színház], which was handed over in 1812. Although excellent Hungarian artists of the time also performed in the huge building, which could accommodate 3,500 spectators, such as Déryné and its second conductor was Ferenc Erkel himself, however, the theater could only be used for 35 years, as it burned down on 2 February 1847.

Pest in the 18th century underwent a great development, it grew into a significant trading town, its population by the beginning of the 19th century reached 33 thousand people. The cultural needs of the German-speaking bourgeoisie in Pest were first served by a theatre in one of the bastions of the old city wall, but in the early 1800s the theater building, that could hold 500 people was deteriorating and was no longer sufficient, so a new one was needed.

After nearly two decades of preparation, correspondence, and planning, the plan also won the support of the Viennese government, and in 1806 Johann Aman, court vice-architecht, was commissioned to design the new theatre in Pest. The court vice-architect, in collaboration with Palatine Joseph, selected the plot on the western side of today's Vörösmarty Square, facing the Danube, with the theatre facing the square and the vigadó [place for merriment] facing the Danube.

Te German Theatre in Pest on Röthing's engraving (Source: FSZEK Budapest Collection)

The plans were approved by Franz I in 1807, and Mihály Pollack was entrusted with the construction. The theatre should have opened by 1810, but its construction was hampered by many reasons, such as the confrontation between Pollack and Aman, who occasionally travelled to Pest from Vienna, yet the theatre was finally opened on 9 February 1812.

The foyer of the theater on the engraving of Károly Schwindt (Source: FSZEK Budapest Collection) 

The building itself was built in a classicist style and was huge, able to accommodate 3,500 spectators. The semicircular auditorium was lined with several storey side lodges. Its operation was solved by the theatre directors renting the theatre from the city and trying to operate it profitably. This was difficult because the theatre was simply too big, practically every 10th resident of Pest fit into the auditorium one night. (It’s like having to fill a 200,000-seat hall every day today for a theatrical performance. Today, there are a total of 60,000 theater seats in Budapest, according to KSH data.)

The auditorium of the theater on Vasquez's engraving (Source: FSZEK Budapest Collection)

There were other problems, the acoustics were not perfect either, they were even described as very lousy, the theatre was dark, drafty, and in the winter its heating proved to be insufficient. Aman explained that he was expecting the vigadó behind the house - which was eventually built not according to Aman's but Pollack's plans, but only in 1832 - and that he was not expecting a semi-empty auditorium, which caused poor acoustics. .

Despite all this, the theatre operated, mainly with performances in German (since the Pest bourgeoisie was mostly German-speaking at the time), but they also performed in Hungarian Róza Déryné Széppataki had guest performances here too, and the second conductor of the theatre was Ferenc Erkel.  

Drawing of the burned theater (Source: FSZEK Budapest Collection)

However, on 2 February 1847, the theatre was shut down by a fire in which the huge building was almost completely destroyed. On 7 February 1847, the Pesti Divatlap wrote about the catastrophe:

“[The German theatre in Pest burned down] on Tuesday - the great feast of the Hausher people of Pest - at dawn the alarming sound of bells woke us up from our dreams, all the streets of the capital were lit by the fire, and watching from the Danube bank, the whole of Buda unfolded from the veil of darkness, shining in a magical light. At the centre of a very red circle on the horizon was a huge building, the most beautiful building in Pest, a city theatre suddenly covered with the flames of all-consuming fire in and outside. This devastating fire destroyed not only the entire auditorium, but also the stage, with all its scenery, machinery and other rich equipment, in such a short time, so that only the sad, dark ruins now resemble the former German Theatre in Pest. And what the fire came from, the heating of the theatre, or perhaps the fireworks associated with the performance of Zampa - is still unknown. ”

Indeed, either the freshly refurbished heating or the carelessly left-in supplies after the previous performance caused the fire, but this wasn't ever discovered. After the fire, a fundraiser was started for the unemployed members of the acting company, as reported by the Hetilap on 23 February 1847:

“Those left without bread by the burning of German theatre receive the best signs of sympathy. Beautiful sums are gathering from everywhere, a woman from Pest herself has collected 100ft 20 krt. p.p. for the director, not on a higher scale, not with hard leg-work. Reward games are being held in Pozsony [Bratislava]. We also hear them moving in Temesvár [Timisoara], Kassa [Košice] and Sopron. ”

The ruins have hardly cooled down, the organization for the construction of a new theatre has already started, already on 21 February an international design competition was announced for the new theatre building, for which 13 applications were received, with even bigger, even more grandiose plans. The first prize was won by Austrian architect Carl Roesner and design work has begun. However, history intervened: the revolution of 1848, and then the war of independence, during which General Hentzi bombarded the entire bank of the Danube in Pest, including the old Vigadó in Pest (the Redoute), interrupted work.

Carl Roesner's plan proposal for the reconstruction of the theatre (Source: Műemlékvédelem, No. 1, 1988, based on plan No. 536.8 = 23127 of the Kisceli plan storage) 

A new one was built on the site of the Vigadó, but the theatre site was imagined differently in the 1860s, and although its partially restored building was then used for a number of purposes for some time, the theatre was never rebuilt. In its place, first the new town hall of Pest was planned, then an apartment building, but finally in 1873 the carpet shop of Fülöp Haas was built here, which was destroyed in World War II.

Cover photo: the German Theatre in Pest on Vasquez's engraving (Source: FSZEK Budapest Collection)



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