The predecessor of today's castle is connected the imperial architect Anton Erhard Martinelli, who (besides the Karlskirche in Vienna) was also the designer of the Invalids’ House in Pest, the building complex of today's Metropolitan Municipality. The building was built as a hunting lodge, as the prince’s court usually stayed in Eisenstadt or Vienna. In 1762, the eldest son of József, who built the hunting castle, Antal Pál died without a successor, so the heir became the second-born Miklós József.
Miklós (the Bright) Esterházy (1714-1790) decided to build his own residence, because he could not transform the Eisenstadt castle to his own taste, so he wanted to expand the already standing castle. But the building fell in a much neglected condition over the years, and it is true that the environment was not an ideal location; the originally marshy area was flooded repeatedly. Thus, at the order of the prince, canals were dug, dams were built, and large-scale construction began. Using 11 million gold forints, Schloss Esterhaza was finally completed in 1766. The building was designed by Johann Mödlhammer, the domanial architect of the Esterházys, and presumably according to Menyhért Hefele’s plans. It is also likely that not a single master of design worked at the same time, but occasionally different architects moulded the Prince’s ideas.
The building complex was called the "Hungarian Versailles" by contemporary descriptions and glorifying poems. Although the Prince visited Versailles, he considered not only the castle of Versailles but also Schönbrunn as a model. It is clear that the designer chose the exterior stairs of the Schönbrunn residence as a model. The centre of the building, the upstairs ceremonial hall occupies a two-floor high space behind the central hall. The side wings follow the usual layout of Hungarian Baroque architecture: they consist of a row of halls and a corridor running in front of them. The different floor plan systems of the two parts of the building also indicate that the castle was built in several phases and the parts were connected to each other afterwards.
The castle is a very representative, particularly impressive, generous work. The Rococo details, the lyre-shaped windows and the curved stair treads show a lightness and ingenuity that could rightly be admired by contemporaries and posterity. However, the words of praise were addressed not only to the castle building, but also to the French garden and the multitude of garden structures.
The castle lived its heyday during the life of its “pomp-loving” lord: a gallery, an opera house, and a puppet theatre entertained the guests. There was silence in Eszterháza only in winter; parties were held almost continuously from spring to late autumn. Operas were performed, hunts, feasts, dance parties and fireworks were arranged to entertain the army of guests. At the same time, the Prince liked not only splendour, but he also held his ground as a soldier: a colonel, and a general of the Imperial Army, and then the owner of the 33rd Infantry Regiment. From 1764 to 1787 he was the captain of the Hungarian Noble Bodyguard, so he was in almost constant contact with Queen Maria Theresa.
It is no coincidence that the most prominent visitor was Maria Theresa. On 1st and 2nd September, 1773, the Empress visited the castle of Miklós “the Bright”. It was then that the Puppet Theatre was opened, and on this occasion the puppet opera Philemon and Baucis, conducted by Joseph Haydn, was performed. Haydn, the last court composer in the history of music, spent almost two decades in the service of Prince Miklós, who not only loved music, but he was also a great baryton player. In the former park of the "Hungarian Versailles", a plethora of chamber gardens, orange gardens, groves, shell-shaped pools, waterfalls, and artificial caves decorated with glass and shells were built at the request of the Prince.
Then in 1790 the music fell silent in Eszterháza, the dreamer of the castle ensemble died. Due to his lifestyle, he left behind huge debts that were paid by the family only later. His heir did not cling to the castle, but rather beautified Eisenstadt, leaving the luxurious fairyland alone. The roads of the park were covered with weeds, and rain was pouring through the roofs. The decorative sculptures, vases, fountains admired by everyone quickly ruined. The movable stones were carried away, and the opera house collapsed.
However, the castle was lucky, because at the end of the 19th century Miklós Esterházy IV and his wife, Countess Margit Cziráky, paid off the previous debts and decided to move into the castle. This period became the second heyday of the residency. In addition to the building, the park was also renovated and modernized. Some of the gardens were designed by Anton Umlauf, one of the best-known gardeners of the Monarchy, and the famous rose garden was completed in 1908. Unfortunately, the rose garden was almost completely destroyed during World War II and the times that followed. Plants perished, the support systems collapsed, everything grew wild. Although Eszterháza became the family's number one residence again, the Princess’ death (1910) ended this brief heyday, the family lived in the castle until 1945. Margit Cziráky was buried here as she wished. The later fate of the castle is typical, after the World War II, its furniture was carried away, there was an agricultural research institute in it and it was also used as a warehouse and machine store barn. Fortunately, by the second half of the 1950s, tractors had been moved out of the castle rooms, and work began that resulted in the opening of a museum in the castle in 1959, on the 150th anniversary of Joseph Haydn’s death.
The restoration of the building complex is still underway. The central block of the building the Belvedere and the clock tower are being renovated now. Previously, all 126 rooms of the castle were adorned with rich Rococo ornaments, and their furniture was also made in this style, which the Prince had brought from France. The rooms are decorated with original furniture, which means that visitors can get to know the atmosphere of the contemporary castle as authentically as possible. Only a small part of the furniture and tapestries belonged to the castle, most of them came from other castles and palaces. The original rooms include the Maria Theresa Room, where the Queen stayed in 1773. After her visit, the room remained intact until 1945.
Translated by Zita Aknai