The tumultuous fate of the small Pompidou in Pest - The former building of the Almássy Square Leisure Center is transformed into a hotel

Hungarian version of the article: A kis pesti Pompidou hányatott sorsa – Szállodává alakítják az Almássy téri Szabadidőközpont egykori épületét

Written by: Tamás Pápai

August 24, 2021 at 9:00 AM

The Almássy Square Leisure Center has been sleeping its (second) Sleeping Beauty dream for almost a decade. The former popular cultural institution was sold by the municipality of Erzsébetváros in 2007 and although the hotel building plans at the time did not materialize, an application for a building permit was recently submitted to expand and transform the building, 35 years ago known as the small Pompidou in Pest, to a hotel.

The plot, which served as the basis of the quite popular leisure center in Erzsébetváros decades ago, opens onto two streets, from Almássy Square to Szövetség Street, the main entrance of the building is at 6 Almássy Square and the back entrance is at 24 Szövetség Street. This was the case 140 years ago, only then reversed: the one-storey residential building faced Szövetség Street, which was continuously expanded with apartments and workshops towards the Almássy Square side of the plot, where, among other things, there was a timber and iron shop.

Almássy Square seen from Almássy Street around 1894, photographed by György Klösz (Source: Fortepan / Budapest Archives. Reference No.: HU.BFL.XV.19.d.1.07.042)

In the building, Ferenc Rettinger opened a pub in 1900, with a bowling alley in the middle of the courtyard, and this wine bar operated even in the 1940s. The building that once stood here was demolished in the 1960s, and the Public Cleaning Office moved to the vacant lot.

The Almássy Square Leisure Center was built on the former vacant lot (Source: Fortepan / No.: 205211)

The 7th District council decided in 1976 to build a pioneer house in the area, this was  one of the most significant public cultural investments in the 6th five-year plan. The building was designed by architects Éva Straub, Zoltán Jakab and interior designer Pál Somogyi: they created a so-called “open house”, the furniture and furnishings were designed to be movable, the rooms to be changed and connected. 

Almássy Square in Erzsébetváros nowadays (Photo: Balázs Both / pestbuda.hu)   

The foundation stone of the house was laid in May 1978, and it was built with the Hungarian-developed elevator-form, ie shutter-lifting technique, at which the slabs were made from top to bottom. Along with the construction, the area was also renewed: the adjacent buildings were renovated and Almássy Street was turned into a pedestrian street. The six-story, nearly 5,000-square-foot building was finally handed over on 7-8 May 1983 with a festive show. The official name of the institution was Pioneer and Youth House, Leisure Center, but even then it was typically mentioned as Almássy Square Leisure Center.

The Almássy Square Leisure Center was opened in 1983, in 2007 the property was sold by the Erzsébetváros municipality (Photo: Balázs Both / pestbuda.hu)

On the upper floor, next to the information office, behind the glass wall, the 25-meter, four-lane learning pool welcomed the guests, on the first floor there was a theatre and reading room for 400 people, on the second floor there were art circles - the Erzsébetváros Gallery operated here as well -  on the third there were the programmes for children and a so-called 'kondícionálóterem' (a gym), while the fourth had a state-of-the-art training room and a tea room, and there were also a disco on the roof terrace. The engineering was placed on the top level. True to the inner city traditions, the house had an inner courtyard, or rather an atrium covered with a glass roof, where it was possible to hold theatrical performances and concerts. The capacity of the building was 1,000 people.

When the leisure center was opened, Almássy Street was transformed into a pedestrian street (Photo: Balázs Both / pestbuda.hu)

The first years were spent searching for a way, the center had to create its own image and clientele, trying to reach pioneers, young people in galleries and retirees at the same time. It started in a lucky period, the Buda Youth Park (Várkert Bazár) soon closed, and the Petőfi Hall has not yet opened, so the centre served not only the entertainment of the area, the district, but the whole of Budapest.

From the empty main hall of the institution the popular Who Knows What? television show was broadcasted in 1983. Cultural programs, dance houses, film screenings, performances and exhibitions followed each other. A series of gerontological lectures was organized for the elderly, and in 1986 the “Kid Castle” was launched for children, offering various program options. There was a ballet education, a photography circle, a literary circle, the cultic bandsof the 80's and the Téka táncház [folk dance events] also started from here.

Although the popularity of houses of culture declined after the change of regime, the series of successes in “Almássy” lasted for another fifteen years. True, from 1998 weaker years followed, and the building was also obsolete. Although this had a long history: on 10 April 1983, before the handover, the paper Új Tükör wrote about construction problems, and in May 1986, it could be read in the magazine Népművelés that the building did not meet safety requirements, although at the time of handover everyone thought “a small Pompidou in Pest was established”.

Around the turn of the millennium, it was suggested that the centre should be closed and privatized instead of a costly renovation, but this did not yet take place in 2000 - nor did the renovation. After that, more and more could be heard about the static problems of the building, for which the shutter-lifting technology used and poor construction were blamed. Finally, in June 2002, due to static problems and leaking, the Great Hall had to be closed and events attracting crowds had to be diverted.

Rear facade of the former Almássy Square Leisure Center facing Szövetség Street (right) (Photo: Balázs Both / pestbuda.hu)

The renovation, which could not be postponed any further, was completed in three stages by June 2005. Once again, the center was characterized by a vibrant life, with colourful programs, children’s events, concerts, folk dance events for hundreds of people, a retirement club and a literary circle.

Two years later, however, the cost of maintaining the building increased to such an extent that in April 2007 the Board of Representatives decided to sell it. The buyer was a real estate company that wanted to carve a four-star, 87-room hotel out of the former leisure center. However, this plan was swept away by the 2008 global economic crisis. Instead, a nightclub was opened in the building in 2010, and two years later the question of converting it into a hotel arose again.  

The renovation of property at 6 Almássy Square has now been put on the agenda again: Almássy Invest Zrt. founded in 2018 submitted an application to the Department of Construction and Heritage Protection of the Goverment Office of Budapest for a building permit for the expansion and transformation of the building to a hotel.

Cover photo: The building of the former leisure center on Almássy Square (Photo: Balázs Both / pestbuda.hu)


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