RIHA Journal 0198 | 10 September 2018

The Restricted Design Competition for the New York Life Insurance Company Building in Budapest

A Late Nineteenth-Century International Design Competition in Central Europe

Katalin Marótzy and Márton Székely

Rapid industrialization and urbanization in Europe and the United States introduced new building types and new methods of construction, leading to important changes in the architectural landscape of major cities. Public and corporate construction proliferated, and design competitions were called upon to identify architectural projects that best suited the needs of a particular state institution or private company. Although initially these competitions were open to all members of the architectural profession, towards the end of the nineteenth century, their format changed to be more effective, with only a restricted number of architects competing for the commission. The present paper focuses on the competition for the New York Life Palace in Budapest and sheds light on its connections with the international trends.


[1] During the second half of the nineteenth century, Budapest, the capital of Hungary, was one of the most rapidly growing cities in Europe; by the 1910s, it had become one of the largest on the continent.1 Europe and post-Civil War United States became closer partners regarding economy, technology and, to a certain extent, architecture. The pace of economic development in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries was unprecedented on both ends.2 The development of transportation and communication media created new opportunities for an international capitalism, and modern forms of foreign investments appeared in the industrialised countries.3 Corporations now ventured into portfolio investments abroad,4 and this provided opportunities for major architectural projects. Several western companies invested into Central and Eastern Europe and had prestigious buildings constructed in cities like Budapest.

[2] The late nineteenth century not only brought about an economic revolution, but also a technical one in the fields of engineering and architecture. Steel – the most important new material of the century – allowed architects to design increasingly taller structures; the use of skeleton frames enabled the buildings to grow to a scale never seen before. In the United States, where laissez-faire capitalism prevailed,5 cities did not prohibit high-rise buildings. So, as technical innovations made such construction projects possible,6 skyscrapers appeared and changed the skylines in the New World forever. Meanwhile, in Europe, investors had to follow stricter urban regulations than in the United States, which had to do with such aspects of building construction as street line allignment, the main cornice height, the number of stories, and the fire prevention ordinances.7 Consequently, although the Old World economy did not prosper any less, cityscapes did not change as dramatically; nevertheless, the late-nineteenth century architecture benefited greatly from the global prosperity of the era.8 The architectural style of these decades, late historicism, is characterized by a combination of various elements from different historical periods resulting in new and unconventional combinations.9

[3] Before the 1800s, towers and cupolas had a specific historical function in architecture; beside their aesthetic value, their purpose was to symbolise the power and greatness of religious and political authorities. They never lost their symbolism entirely, but by the end of the nineteenth century, they came to play a secondary decorative role in the overall design, that of emphasizing verticality. Although in many European cities height restriction laws were imposed, additional towers or cupolas were allowed to exceed the set height. Consequently, skylines in numerous great metropolises of Europe came to be dominated by historicist towers and cupolas. This happened in parallel with the construction of early skyscrapers in North America. Although these modern towers differed greatly from the European buildings in terms of their structure or size, upon closer examination, the similarity of certain architectural elements is evident, since in both cases the decorative details were articulated in a way that closely resembled European historicism.

[4] A new type of buildings, the commercial and industrial company headquarters, emerged at that moment.10 As these enterprises started to grow, they constructed greater and more prestigious edifices for themselves, which were meant to express their power and stability.11 After the American Civil War, there was a period of economic growth in the United States, and many American companies started to develop closer business relations with the European countries. This lead to real estate investments with the purpose of creating local headquarters that were also meant to be “standing advertisements”. Banks and insurance companies were among the pioneers in the areas of modern advertising and public relations, recognising the significance of the expressive power of architecture quite early in the process. Since they offered no material product for sale, erecting spectacular buildings became especially important for these enterprises to gain the trust of their potential customers.12

[5] During the nineteenth century, not only the construction and design methods, but the practice of architecture itself underwent significant changes. Guilds that regulated most of the professions since the Middle Ages were gradually replaced with the modern system of chambers of crafts. This modernisation occurred following the emergence of the Enlightenment ideas in the late eighteenth century, which resulted in an increasing public demand for a more democratic way of selecting the architect that would receive the commission. In the West, instead of direct commissions, a preference for the process of open competitions for major architectural projects developed.13 Design competitions became the symbol of society’s commitment to civic progress in the field of architecture.14 The United States played the leading role in spreading this method as their government was the first to announce open public design competitions in 1792.15 By the early 1900s, architectural competitions were considered to be common practice in the case of major building projects – both private and public. The present paper examines the evolution of design competitions in Hungary during the era of historicism.16 It focuses on the restricted competition for the New York Life Insurance Company’s palace in Budapest and its international context.17

Company Buildings in Europe

[6] In the second half of the nineteenth century, several international enterprise buildings appeared in the continental Europe, the primary intent of which was to emphasize the company’s brand. Needing to stand out from the ordinary apartment houses that dominated European cities, most of these buildings had a very peculiar form. Two American insurance companies: the Equitable and the New-York Life were the most powerful ones at that moment, and both of them had interests in Europe.18 They built representative office buildings in New York City after the Civil War, and as their incomes progressively increased during the 1880s, they decided to construct prestigious company buildings for their European subsidiaries.19 The New York Life Insurance Company opened its first local branch in the United Kingdom in 1870, and then established its first European Branch office in 1876 in central Paris. The annual income of the European Branch – excluding Great Britain – increased from 374,000 to 1,384,000 dollars from 1876 to 1882.20 In 1884, New York Life purchased a classicist mid-nineteenth-century apartment house in Paris (Fig. 1a), near the famous Opéra Garnier.21 Their offices occupied just one part of the building, with apartments taking up most of the space, and a café occupying the ground-floor. Noticeably, the company has added a new clock-tower to the corner of the house that later became a common means of aesthetic enhancement.

1 New York Life Buildings │a) in Paris │b) in Berlin │c) in Vienna (reprod. from: James Monroe Hudnut, Semi-Centennial History of the New-York Life Insurance Company 1845–1895, New York 1895, 211, 215, 217)

[7] In the late 1880s, New York Life completed office buildings in Kansas City, Omaha, St. Paul, Montreal, and Minneapolis.22 The Kansas City building featured an eagle sculpture above its main entrance, created by the American sculptor Louis Saint-Gaudens (1851–1913). Later, replicas of this work were installed on the company buildings in Omaha and St. Paul. During these same years, the corporation decided to build new local headquarters for their most successful subsidiaries in Europe. The executive board chose four cities: Berlin, Amsterdam, Vienna, and Budapest.23 Presumably, the main goal of the American management was to advertise themselves in the most booming European cities of the period.24 In the years that followed, land lots were purchased in Berlin25 (Fig. 1b) and in Vienna26 (Fig. 1c). By 1887, both of these company buildings were completed.27 The Equitable opened its Berlin headquarters28 (Fig. 2a) the same year.29

[8] Research to date suggests that the New York Life Insurance Company wasn’t clear on the intended function of the clock towers. However, they were not a common feature, even in the late nineteenth century, so they must have attracted public attention, and thus could have been chosen as a representative sign of the New York Life. The eagles were undoubtedly symbols not only of the enterprise itself, but of the United States in general, since these sculptures drew upon the national coat of arms. In each city, the company purchased property that ensured that their buildings would be clearly visible; for instance, all of them were located on major intersections, which is very unlikely to be a matter of mere coincidence. Unlike in the Anglo-Saxon cities, in continental Europe these corporate buildings had mixed functions: premises were usually located on the ground floor, offices on the first floor, and apartments on the upper storeys.30

2 a) Equitable Life Building, Berlin (reprod. from: Architektur der Gegenwart, vol. 2, pl. 32) │ b) New York Life Building, Amsterdam │ c) New York Life Building, Budapest (reprod. from: Hudnut 1895, 213, 219)

[9] In 1890/91, New York Life purchased land parcels for their new edifices in Amsterdam31 and Budapest32. The Amsterdam building, designed by the Dutch architect Jan van Looy (1852–1911), opened in 1892 (Fig. 2b), and the Budapest New York Life palace, designed by the Hungarian architect Alajos Hauszmann (1847–1926), was inaugurated in October 1894 in the presence of the American management (Fig. 2c). The unifying feature of these buildings was the addition of the characteristic tower, often with an integrated clock. This latter element could have been motivated by marketing reasons: as life insurances were acquired for a lifetime, a clock always showing the time could serve as an expressive trademark. While company skyscrapers in America merely stood out in terms of their height, late nineteenth-century European corporate buildings relied on specific architectural elements – such as cupolas and steeples – to stand out and stand for the greatness of their respective companies. And while decorative towers, steeples, spires, ornaments and allegoric sculptures were widely used in late nineteenth-century architecture, the motif of an eagle feeding its eaglets is unique to the New York Life buildings.

[10] Following the completion of these five33 branches in Europe, New York Life started on the construction of their head office with a monumental clock tower (Fig. 3a) in New York City (1894–1898). The designers were the American architect Stephen Hatch (1839–1894), and later the architectural firm McKim & Mead. Apart from the tower clock, the decoration shows no impact of the previous European projects. Then, in 1898, the enterprise announced a design competition for a new building in Paris, at the same location as the existing company office. The jury awarded three submissions, with Georges Morin-Goustiaux’s (1859–1909) & Le Cardonnel’s (1862–1936) plan receiving the first prize.34 The new building opened in 1900 with the lavish Café Riche on the ground floor (Fig. 3b).35

3 a) New York Life Building, New York City, 1896 (reprod. from: Hudnut 1895, frontispiece) | b) the second New York Life Building in Paris, 1900 (reprod. from: La construction moderne 16 [1900], pl. 59)

Apparently, the company decided not to hire American architects. If a competition did take place, a local architect was chosen instead, as is often the case with direct commissions. It would seem that besides the matters of publicity, it was the firm’s official policy for their offices to blend in with their architectural environment. Consequently, the visual appearance of these buildings echoed that of their immediate surroundings. Local architects would also have been better acquainted with the local construction methods and regulations, which must have significantly simplified the entire process. An excerpt from the company’s history book, published in 1906, illustrates the importance of these European properties for the company:

During this time, the New-York Life began and completed with a few exceptions, the eleven office buildings – five in this country and six in Europe – which have enlisted a powerful community sentiment in favour of the Company, besides furnishing local headquarters and an investment for its continually increasing funds. These buildings have given American policy-holders in their vicinity a sense of ownership in the Company, and have been a standing advertisement of no small value.36

The Competition for the New York Life Palace in Budapest

[11] The first modern architectural design competition in Hungary took place in 1844 and concerned the plans for a new parliament building in Budapest (although it was not realised at the time).37 After the Compromise of 1867, a highly progressive era started in Hungary, providing prospects for a profound modernisation of the entire society. It resulted in a series of great national building projects that unfolded up until World War I.38 Furthermore, an increasing number of open competitions for state projects was held during this period; some well-known examples include the one for the Opera House in 1872, the Parliament Building in 1882, the Ministry of Culture in 1905, and the National Theatre in 1913. The practice of design competitions became the norm for public architecture of national significance, whereas commissions for private buildings remained for the most part direct. At the beginning of the twentieth century, also competitions for banks, insurance company buildings and headquarters of other private corporations became more frequent, though we know much less of this type of competitions as there was not as much publicity. An early example is the open contest for the Foncière Palace at the beginning of 1881.39 The Belgian insurance company had an interest in Hungary, so a decision was made to erect a conspicuously luxurious apartment house at a prestigious location in Budapest, at the start of Andrássy Avenue40 in the proximity of their existing headquarters. A total of fifty-eight submissions was received by the jury.41 Four equal first prizes of HUF 80042 were granted to Ödön Lechner (1845–1914),43 Gyula Pártos (1845–1916), Adolf Feszty (1846–1900), and Zsigmond Quittner (1859–1918). Eventually, Feszty, an innovative architect, was awarded the commission, and the building was completed by the end of 1882. The monumental cupola of the palace, with its height of sixty-seven metres, became an important Budapest landmark (Fig. 4a).44

4 a) Foncière Palace, Budapest, 1890 (photograph: https://foto.fszek.hu/dsr/access/d33d8836-0384-4147-815a-aae7aedd0450) | b) Gresham Palace, Budapest, 2015 (author’s photograph)

The English Gresham Insurance Agency announced an open international competition for a new company building in Budapest in 1904. Zsigmond Quittner and József Vágó (1877–1947) shared the first prize and the commission.45 The Gresham Palace was built between 1905–1907 in the city center, just across from the famous Chain Bridge that was also becoming a significant element of the Danube bank cityscape (Fig. 4b).

[12] During the last third of the nineteenth century, under the imperial and royal monarchy of Austria-Hungary, urban development was especially active and expansive. The cityscape changed mainly due to projects of foreign investors with some previously discussed exceptions. However, the architectural identity of Budapest was predominently shaped by the local architects.46

The Contestants

[13] The 1891 competition for the New York Life Palace in Budapest was quite unusual and generated exceptional public interest. The firm had opened its local branch in 1886, but it was able to acquire a building site that met their requirements of size and location only five years later.47 The company had been looking for a location where no other building would have been able to rival its headquarters in terms of appearence. Therefore, the management wished to avoid the old city center, with its many outstanding structures, and turned their attention to the Grand Boulevard that was already under construction. It differed from the recently completed Andrássy Avenue, as it was less aristocratic, more commercial and lively. Eventually, a site large enough for the intended structure was found on the Elizabeth Boulevard, a section of the Grand Boulevard. The site was located at a breakpoint of the boulevard line, so the tower became even more visible from a distant viewpoint. The company eventually purchased the building lot in January 1891.48 Right after the acquisition of the site, a design competition was announced.49 It was a restricted contest: the company invited twelve renowned Hungarian architects of the time. Unfortunately, currently there are no sources available to explain how the participants were chosen or to confirm who was invited. However, a statement was published in the most well-known Hungarian architectural journal, Építő Ipar [Building Industry], from which it is possible to identify, with some degree of certainty, some of them.50 This statement was released to eliminate the rumours that a number of contestants thought the competition was unfair and refused to participate. It was signed by a number of well-known architects who ultimately did not submit an entry, although could have been invited: Győző Czigler (1850–1905), Ödön Lechner, József Kauser (1855–1920), and Gyula Pártos. Czigler was a famous university professor and architect of some notable buildings in Budapest such as the Széchenyi Spa. Lechner happened to be the most inventive architect of his age in terms of style; his secessionist buildings such as the Museum of Applied Arts still add their unique flair to the Budapest cityscape. Kauser accomplished the largest church in Budapest, St. Stephen’s Basilica, after fifty years of construction.51 Pártos had worked together with Lechner on several projects in the 1880s including the Kecskemét town hall. Apart from this statement, there is no evidence at all that any of these architects participated in the competition.

[14] By the competition deadline, July 31st, 1891, eight architects had submitted their projects; an additional project was submitted anonymously, presumably by an uninvited designer. Fortunately, all of these projects have been published, at least partially.52 The majority of the eight contestants had already achieved professional success by the time of the competition. János Bobula (1844–1903) was a master builder before he became an architect, and approached the questions of style in a rather conservative manner: he insisted on applying a pure kind of neo-Renaissance. Gyula Bukovics (1841–1914) began his architectural practice in the atelier of Miklós Ybl (1814–1891), the most influential architect of his period, master of the neo-Renaissance style and designer of the Hungarian Opera House. Bukovics’ most important works are the Ministry of Agriculture in Budapest (1887) and the picturesque Chateau Schossberger at the village of Tura. Vilmos Freund (1846–1922) designed several city palaces on the prominent Andrássy Avenue. Alajos Hauszmann (1847–1926) was an acknowledged architect and a university professor; he held remarkable authority at that time and was in charge of the reconstruction of the royal palace in Buda and the seat of the Supreme Court. He was the first chairman of the Association of Hungarian Architects (MÉSZ) and was also very influential regarding the process of design competitions – he was often a member or even the president of the juries. Samu Pecz (1854–1922), the professor of Medieval Architecture at the University of Technology in Budapest, was almost the only one in this competition to prefer a medieval architectural style to the classical building style.53 He is remembered as the designer of the Great Market Hall of Budapest. Zsigmond Quittner also built some notable city palaces in the centre of Budapest such as the previously mentioned Gresham Palace. He also held some important positions and was the chairman of the Metropolitan Council of Utility Works and later of the MÉSZ.

The Façade Proposals

[15] All projects submitted to the competition followed the architectural trends of the time, notably late historicism. There were no art nouveau-style entries or any early modernist ones. It is worth taking a brief overview of the published projects,54 and address some of their defining features. Although the submissions to the competition combine elements from a variety of historical styles and periods, their originality did not lie in these stylistic choices, but in their volumetric and structural characteristics. The building’s exterior had to emphasize its impressive dimensions and mass. In one way or another, all of the projects submitted to the competition emphasised the acute angle of the building, an element which had the potential of becoming its most distinguishing feature. Another one was the way the central part of the main façade facing the Grand Boulevard was articulated.

[16] Three of the contestants chose to highlight the corner rather than the centre of the boulevard façade. Gyula Bukovics’s design (Fig. 5a) showed a fairly plain façade with an accentuated central avant-corps. On the corner of the projected building, Bukovics added a circular tower with a hemispheric cupola. The composition is balanced: an elegant façade facing the Grand Boulevard seems very much in harmony with the additional corner tower.

5 Proposals for the New York Life Building in Budapest, 1891 │a) by Gyula Bukovics │b) by Zsigmond Quittner (reprod. from: Magyar Mérnök és Építészegylet Közlönye (MMÉEK) [Gazette of the Association of Hungarian Engineers and Architects] 27 [1893], 397, pl. II)

Zsigmond Quittner’s plan (Fig. 5b) suggested a more ornate design with an arrangement similar to Bukovics’s. His project for the New York Life Building also combines a corner tower and a symmetrical main façade, but the cupola, in this case, is significantly higher and is topped by a lantern and a statue, accentuating the corner even more. The triple loggia on the main façade marks the central axis.55

[17] János Bobula submitted two projects at the same time, one inspired by the Gothic (Fig. 6a), and the other by Classicism (Fig. 6b). Unfortunately, we know only of the elevation drawings of his plans, but it is nevertheless sufficient information to conclude that his two projects differed not only in the architectural style, but also in the way he articulates the mass of the building. The gothic-inspired design had a monumental tower on the corner that set up a major vertical accent, while on the classicist plan a huge cupola on a drum crowns the main façade. This second version by Bobula is less detailed, rather just a sketch; as its proportions differ apparently from the other version, it does not seem to fit to the same layout.

6 János Bobula, two proposals for the New York Life Building in Budapest, 1891 │a) in a neo-Gothic style │b) in a neo-Classical style (reprod. from: Ország-Világ 13 [1891], 626)

[18] Samu Pecz’s proposal in a medieval style (Fig. 7a) emphasizes the central part of the main façade by topping it with a particularly high steeple. Of all the projects submitted to the competition, this had the highest spire. He also added a corner cupola, but unlike the other designs, it was polygonal, not circular.

7 Proposals for the New York Life Building in Budapest, 1891 │a) by Samu Pecz │b) by Vilmos Freund (reprod. from: MMÉEK 27 [1893], pl. III and V)

In his entry plan, Vilmos Freund (1846–1922) also emphasised the corner by adding a superstructure that functions as a kind of pedestal for a group of statues (Fig. 7b). He also added a smaller cupola to crown the middle section of the main façade, but the corner appears to dominate the overall view.

[19] Antal Steinhardt (1856–1928) and Adolf Lang (1848–1913) approached their design for the New York Life Building in a very different manner (Fig. 8). They included many Gothic closed balconies, pediments and towers, and placed a cupola above the central part of the main façade, while the corner was also richly decorated with Gothic motifs, a German Renaissance pediment and an ornate clock. We can also observe a French influence in the shape of the roof.

8 Antal Steinhardt and Adolf Lang, proposal for the New York Life Building in Budapest, 1891 (reprod. from: MMÉEK 27 [1893], pl. XII)

9 Keresztély Ulrich, proposals for the New York Life Building in Budapest, 1891 │a) first version │b) second version. (Reprod. from: Ország-Világ 13 [1891], 622, and MMÉEK 27 [1893], pl. XVIII)

[20] Keresztély Ulrich (1836–1909) was the other applicant who presented two different variants at the same time. Their ornamentation was designed in a neo-Renaissance style with baroque elements and a strong French influence,56 even though Hungarian historicism was generally more influenced by the German trends.57 The first variant (Fig. 9a) was a simpler one, with no exterior loggias. The second version (Fig. 9b), on the other hand, had a huge triple loggia at the centre of the façade facing the boulevard. The architect also added a loggia to the curved corner and a monumental group of statues on its top.

[21] Despite the previously mentioned plans, we cannot get a full picture of Alajos Hauszmann’s competition design, because there is only one elevation drawing that we know of (Fig. 10). The central part of the main façade had an avant-corps with a pediment and a baroque-inspired cupola on the top. On the corner we can observe a stocky spire with a lantern.

10 Alajos Hauszmann, proposal for the New York Life Building in Budapest, 1891 (reprod. from: Ország-Világ 13 [1891], 623)

The Proposals for the Interior

[22] The interior drawings that were elaborated, including those of the café, the entrance halls, the main staircase, and the great courtyard, were very detailed. The trapezoidal site would have resulted in a distorted rectangle-shaped courtyard if the architect had created regular wings that were parallel to the edges of the building lot – only two of the contestants decided to pursue this option: Quittner and Pecz. However, more importantly, the main entrance was placed in the middle of the boulevard virtually on every entry plan. Although functionally this would have been well-founded, Quittner provided a separate staircase for company offices instead, a staircase that only lead up to the first-floor. The café occupied the corner58 and the part that faced the side street, Dohány street, at the ground level – with only one exception: Freund’s design. The most interesting element of his entry plan was the design of the coffee-house. Unlike the other applicants, he placed this room in the inner courtyard that would have been a huge space with a glass roof surrounded by three storeys of loggias in a way that resembled a theatre auditorium (Fig. 11a). This kind of interior layout had no precedent in Budapest; only the Somossy Orpheum59 came close to Quittner’s design a couple of years later. Contemporary architectural press especially appreciated this concept.60

11 Interior design proposals for the café in the New York Life Building in Budapest, 1891 │a) by Vilmos Freund │b) by Samu Pecz (reprod. from: MMÉEK 27 [1893], pl. III and VI)

Bukovics’s plan stood out for its spacious café, created by replacing the internal load-bearing walls with a skeleton frame structure. His proposal overall was innovative in terms of structure while still rather conservative in terms of style. In contrast to this, other contestants focused on creating an outstanding and unique exterior, with a rather conventional layout; Ulrich’s design is a great example of this strategy. Another rather unique solution to the café design was Pecz’s: he added a long premise on the courtyard side that would become a conservatory with an iron frame (Fig. 12a). The entire interior was heavily decorated in a gothic-revival style and crowned by lierne vaults (Fig. 11b); these were typical of the late gothic age and were widely used in the nineteenth- century neo-Gothic architecture.61

[23] The peculiarity of Steinhardt’s and Lang’s design was the hexagonal layout of the café room on the corner and the addition of a great gallery to it (Fig. 12b). Their floor plan tried to combine the advantages of the regular wings with a rectangular courtyard. Eventually, Ulrich’s project for the interior of the New York Life Building café was the most conservative one, as it essentially was an aggregation of smaller rooms with such an outmoded design (Fig. 12c). His elegantly articulated courtyard, however, stood out for its exuberantly decorated row of arches. Bukovics also highlighted the courtyard: he designed one of its sides (the side of the main entrance) to be softly curved (Fig. 12d). This resulted in a long, curved hall that would have united the corner-tower and the circular entrance hall into a single symmetrical composition – creating one of the most original architectural solutions in the entire competition. Another unique feature of his plan was the impressive main staircase that occupied the entire court-wing.

12 Floorplans for the New York Life Building in Budapest, 1891 │a) by Samu Pecz (top left) │b) by Antal Steinhardt and Adolf Lang (top right) │c) by Keresztély Ulrich (down left) │d) by Gyula Bukovics (down right). (Reprod. from: MMÉEK 27 [1893], 98, 265, 393, 398)

[24] In conclusion, it can be said that the applicants drew inspiration from different historical building styles while synthesising all of the technical innovations of their age. The entry plans showed a wide variety of architectural and engineering solutions as the competing architects experimented with diverse layouts, accents and ornamentation. Bukovics’s classicist plan was relatively modest, just like the anonymous submission (Fig. 13) that could even be accused of showing little imagination. Although only its elevation is known of, the design itself is quite mediocre with its rather conventional avant-corps and cupolas.