The Grand Boulevard that crosses and links the inner districts of the capital city is one of the most important traffic routes of Budapest. Its four sections were named after the members of the Habsburg family (Szent István Boulevard was originally Lipót Boulevard). During the Middle Ages, a navigable offset of the Danube was on the place of the Boulevard, which was filled up in the Modern Period mostly. It functioned as a drain channel and a waste dump until the 1760s, when it was filled up for good. Hydraulic engineer Ferenc Reitter, who had worked in the regulations of the Danube and the Tisza, and had already taken part in the construction of Buda and Pest quays, suggested building a thirty-six-meter wide round channel related to flood-prevention in 1865.
Based on his plans, the round channel would have been built on the place of the Grand Boulevard (using the water of the Soroksár-Danube Tributary). He thought that it would be suitable for serving commercial traffic and the sewerage system besides its flood-preventing function. Moreover, the significant aim of the development project was to boost economy by developing investments, trade and transport, and the road network as well.
After getting the permission from the Ministry of Transport in 1868, entrepreneurs (Danube Channel Company of Pest, Alphons Mention and his partners) who reserved the licence of the channel construction expected a huge income from it, because it would have been possible to get to the Western Terminal by boat too. They designed 12 bridges on the channel, with spectacular rows of palaces on the banks. After that the Ministry backed out of the channel construction due to high construction costs and the entrepreneurs were not willing to take out foreign loans (due to their high risks), the plan of the round channel was rejected, but the concept of building a traffic route with sewerage system and palaces remained in urbanism plans.
The track of a future route was defined based on Reitter’s plan that followed the track of the former Danube tributary. These lower areas were ideal for a drain channel powered by gravitation. The construction of decorative palaces on the Boulevard was boosted by the laws of 1871 that promised tax allowances and was accelerated by preparations for the Millennial Celebration. Finally, the Grand Boulevard was born at the turn of the century, with the Western Terminal, the Vígszínház, the Royal Hotel, the New York Palace and the National Theatre.
The golden age of the National Theatre and the start of the Boulevard constructions could be dated almost the same time. Though the construction of the Grand Boulevard could partly contribute to that ‘golden age’, it is mainly due to the fact that the National Theatre resisted to the trends of the period and did not let the popular drama shift towards the direction of the singing -weeping popularity. As Baron Podmaniczky said, the National Theatre ‘does not need either gypsy music or drinking-songs or rogue stories’.
The Boulevard construction was hindered by the economic crisis of 1873 as well. The first section was built by 1883, when the section between the Western Terminal, Király Street and Baross Street was opened. The pace of constructions accelerated when Prime Minister Kálmán Tisza ensured a credit of HUF 6.5 million for the Council of Public Construction to purchase properties and cover construction costs. The railway terminal of Pest on Nyugati Square was in the way of constructions, thus it had to be demolished. The present Western Terminal was finished by 1877, considering the increased railway traffic.
The Vígszínház, which began as a business venture, as a joint-stock company, was not designed for the Grand Boulevard originally. Its place was defined by the city construction politics, whose aim was to boost landowners’ building enthusiasm by increasing property prices around Vígszínház. Another special thing about Vígszínház was that it was realised by civil initiatives completely without the financial support of the city leadership and the public sphere, because the political circles of the period saw cosmopolitanism in the burlesque programs taken from French popular theatres and saw anti-Hungarist attacks in German-language performances. Civilians could not be stopped from realising the dream of the theatre, not even by the resistance of the political environment. Count Tivadar Andrássy was an outstanding example of civilian enthusiasm. According to anecdotes, he recruited a great number of aristocrats into the company of theatre builders, who did not really care about the payback of their couple-hundred-forint shares.
The section between Margaret Bridge and Üllői Road was finished by 1888, and finishing the Szent István Boulevard became possible after the dispossession of the Árpád Mill in 1891. During the 25-year-long construction of the Grand Boulevard, a more than four-kilometre-long road was built from Margaret Bridge to Boráros Square. The horse-drawn omnibus was replaced by the quicker and more popular tram on the two sides of the roadway as of 1887. Tram-rails were laid along pavements fractionally and later they were relocated in the middle of the roadway during the restorations in 1945. 251 buildings (mostly one-storied houses) were pulled down and 253 multi-storied buildings were constructed. Later, the height of buildings in the surrounding streets were adjusted to the height of this floor level, thus the height of buildings increased in the whole city centre finally. About a hundred years after its creation, the Grand Boulevard was restored and modernised in the 1990s, when it reached its present up-to-date technical state.
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Translated by Zita Aknai