A close look at…
Budapest | Hotel Gellért
Few hotels of my investigations are as convoluted as Budapest’s famous ‘Hotel Gellért’, which happens to be Hungary’s most widely known hotel. Renowned for its exceptional Art Nouveau baths – their images have been published for decades in nearly any mainstream publication about the city – the hotel today seems to serve only as a rather humble supplement to the lavish historic spa complex with its central ‘effervescent’ indoor swimming pool and outdoor sun terraces that surround Europe’s very first wave pool. Although designed as a coherent ensemble in a capital where hot springs abound and bathing is part of everyday life, the ‘Gellért’ was inaugurated in 1918. Destined to become one of the continent’s most fashionable resorts that even offered a private seaplane shuttle service to Vienna, its luxurious hedonism was rather short-lived. In the aftermath of WWII, only the facade of the hotel was left intact while the famous baths escaped the turmoil nearly unscathed. Beneath the imposing beauty of the building’s Secessionist facade lies an apparent stylistic quandary that becomes less startling if one realizes that today’s ‘Gellért’ is essentially a modern hotel that was subsequently rebuilt within its historic shell in 1962 and 1973 when it became, once again, Hungary’s premier hotel.
40 years later, the hotel is a time warp of Eastern European design that might not sit well with everybody, especially after an obligatory soak in the sumptuous ‘Gellért Baths’ with their magnificent blue Zsolnay ceramic tiles and ornaments. Nevertheless, as one of the former Eastern Bloc’s emblematic grand hotels that has not undergone a major refurbishment, many of the hotel’s interiors and quirky details make it an interesting and somewhat unexpected design excursion. Interiors like the hotel’s renowned Eszpresso coffee shop or the corner suite which hosted Richard Nixon in 1963 – both quasi unchanged since – raise the question why certain lifestyle magazines like ‘Wallpaper’ and ‘Monocle’ have not (yet) disclosed the hotel’s singular aesthetics in greater detail. Once the most celebrated ‘spa hotel’ of its time, the ‘Gellért’ is an interesting building type that, even spatially, accords the predominance to the in-house hot springs hat have been used since the 12th century. Not the hotel lobby, but the majestic public foyer of the thermal baths and pools is the most imposing room of the building which was designed to form a continuous sequence with the public spaces of the hotel, ingeniously accommodating level changes with double-height rooms and mezzanines. Creating a very interesting overlap of uses and frequentations, it is an indicator that the ‘Gellért’ was planned as a self-sufficient destination for a rather privileged circle of both local and international patrons who found elegant distractions and the most up-to-date healthcare facilities under one roof. As much as it has hosted may visiting dignitaries since its opening nearly a hundred years ago, the ‘Gellért’ remains an institution for many Budapestians who make the early morning visit to the medicinal baths and pools an integral part of their daily routine.
Entirely rebuilt in two successive stages, the 233 rooms follow essentially the original layout of the hotel, although private facilities have subsequently been added to all guest rooms. However surprising with regard to more commonplace factors like size and exposure that apply to room categories in contemporary properties, historic grand hotels traditionally offered a large array of accommodations with furnishings and rates that reflected the social status of their guests. Since most properties have adapted to a more homogenous guest structure over the last decades, the ‘Gellért’ is one of a few hotels that still offers the complete prewar palette of room types, ranging from Spartan singles with minuscule bathrooms to spacious double rooms and even more generous corner suites. While many of the front-facing units have been updated in an pseudo-antique style that tries to establish a palpable coherence to the hotel’s 1918 exterior, the furnishings in the majority of rooms are a flashback to Hungary in the 1960s. Bleak and rather somber in some of the larger units, interesting and functional especially in those doubles that are actually minuscule ‘Junior Suites’ and with their sleeping alcove in wooden veneer and geometric furniture that is characteristic for the period.
Occupying a prominent spot on the Buda side of the city, flanked by the Danube and the fabled ‘Gellért’ mountain, roughly half of the guest rooms benefit from pleasant views. Rooms at the front of the hotel afford frontal river views that can be noisy while rooms at the side, facing the mountain, offer a side view of the Danube that is much quieter and preferable in the end. Nearly all of these front-facing rooms have balconies with French doors. The remainder of the guest rooms overlooks either the cupolas of the spa and the wave pool or face quiet, yet insignificant, interior courtyards.
Currently managed by ‘Danubius Hotels’, the largest hotel group in the country, the still iconic hotel is essentially a property that is 50 years old and that, for the time being, a functioning relic of its (Socialist) past, despite a growing competition of other hotels. Lacking solid funds for a comprehensive refurbishment, the only natural accumulation of discrepancies that results, is tolerated, even cherished, by returning regulars – and shunned by many unprepared guests not willing to repeat their visit. This being said, the hotel’s staff tries hard, with a great level of professionalism and dedication, to make the best of a complex structure that is even further complicated by separate management entities for the baths and the hotel. A showy reminder of a period that many Hungarians are eager to eradicate as much as possible, the hotel’s old-fashioned, postwar luxury works its delightfully anachronistic charms for anybody open-minded enough to forego certain expectations. Still, the hotel’s biggest raison d’être is the convenient access to the famous baths and the fabulous (surprisingly powerful) outdoor wave pool, an ongoing attraction since 1927. Sadly, the dedicated staffed elevator that allowed hotel guests to access the baths in their robe is not in use since it was superseded by a banal corridor on the 2nd floor that fulfills the same purpose.
The Name of the Game
Behind its historical facade, Hungary’s most emblematic property is uneasy whether to embrace or eradicate the architectural legacy of its postwar decades.
Danubius Hotel Gellért
Szent Gellért tér 1