King Matthias' Palace

How does a private house become a city symbol?

The Jakab palace does not belong to the oldest buildings in Košice/Kassa, so rich in medieval monuments. It was built in 1899 by the Jakab brothers, the contractors Árpád and Géza, on the property inherited from their father, out of the former city wall, on the bank of the Malomárok, the “Mill Ditch”. The family is not considered among the outstanding architects of the age: the authoritative A századforduló magyar építészete (Hungarian architecture at the turn of the century) by János Gerle (1990) does not dedicate a special entry to them, and apart from the palace in Košice it only mentions two of their works: the villa in Érmelléki street 9 in Budapest (1914) and the Catholic high school in Skalica/Szakolca (1911). Nevertheless, they built more than this in Kassa, where they, as contractors with a brick factory of their own, participated in the construction of the Schalkház Hotel, the Art Nouveau high school designed by Gyula Pártos, or of the eclectic Corps Headquarters, and after the family moved to Budapest in 1908, they also planned the civil servant estate of Virányos in Buda.

However, the house also had a number of features which from the outset attracted the attention of the local public. On the one hand, the Jakab brothers acquired and incorporated in their palace the discarded medieval stone carvings of the local cathedral, recently restored by Frigyes Schulek, thus adding several hundred years of pedigree to the fin-de-siècle villa. On the one hand, the palace, built in a Venetian Gothic style, whose representative rear facade, similarly to its models, looked on the local canale, the Mill Ditch, offered a very picturesque spectacle at the beginning of the road towards the rest and entertainment place of the citizens, the city park. The local postcard edition exploited this sight indeed, emphatically presenting the Neo-Gothic private house as “the palace of the architect Árpád Jakab”.

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The third, historically definitive feature of the building was that its front tower explicitly copied the left gate tower of the “Vajdahunyad Castle”, built in the City Park of Budapest for the Hungarian millenary celebrations (1896), whose picture was spread by thousands of postcards throughout the country. The obvious connection with the ancestral nest of the Hunyadi family – the castle of Vajdahunyad/Hunedoara in southern Transylvania, of which the Budapest monument was a free replica – was probably particularly important in Kassa, in whose tradition and self-image King Matthias Hunyadi (1456-1490) played an important role: he visited the city on several occasions, and his donations were an important contribution to the completition of the cathedral, whose right-side tower bears his name and his coat of arms. It is telling, however, that such a tower cannot be found in the original castle of Vajdahunyad: Árpád Jakab intended to copy not the original monument, but its well-known romantic representation in his private palace.

The “Vajdahunyad Castle” in Budapest’s City Park (1896), and the original castle in Vajdahunyad/Hunedoara

This connection must have played a role in the fact that in 1943, when the city of Kassa wanted to erect a memorial for the 500th birthday of the ruler who was so decisive for the city’s history, they placed it on the main facade of the still privately owned Jakab palace facing the Hernád street, which on this occasion received the much more majestic name of King Matthias Boulevard.

The house, which thus became a public sight of the city, soon gained further, although unexpected historical prominence. When the Red Army occupied Kassa as the first of the Slovakian great cities, and it became clear that Slovakia will be assigned not the role of the last German satellite, but that of the martyr Czechoslovakia cut in pieces by Hitler, Edvard Beneš held the first meeting of the new Czechoslovak government in this building. Here they issued the notorious Košice Program, which declared the collective guilt of the Germans and Hungarians in Czechoslovakia. The event is still commemorated by a plaque on the wall, as a counterpart of the Matthias memorial, and the Slovak guides usually emphasize this historical role of the building.

After the war the house was nationalized, and thus it became not only symbolically, but also in practice a public building of the city. Its ground floor became the central marriage hall, the first floor the meeting room of the mayor of Košice. In addition, the building also housed the ironworkers’ club. In 1968, in the spirit of socialist urban planning, the Mill Ditch was drained, and now a four-lane highway runs at the foot of the building, through the city’s heart.

But the Jakab palace has legally remained a private house. The heirs of Hugó Barkányi, who in 1908 purchased the house from the builder, are still engaged in a lawsuit to reclaim their property, while the city, understandably, does not want to return the historical palace. Which indicates, independently of the outcome of the lawsuit, to which extent the former private house has became during its hundred-year of history a public building and an identity symbol of the city.

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