Corvin’s history began in 1915 when Budapest agreed to build a large department store at the southern side of the square, which is named after actress and singer Lujza Blaha today. One of the first film theatres of the city, the iconic Apolló Cinema, was demolished in favour of the new construction project.

Large, mostly multi-floor department stores were shooting up around Europe at that time, and the Budapest citizens had already got a taste of such development in 1911 with the opening of the Párisi Nagy Áruház, or Paris Department Store, on Andrássy avenue.

Hamburg citizen behind opening

It’s not surprising that the realisation of the Corvin project was carried out by an international investor, German businessman Max Emden, son of a long-established merchant family in Hamburg and sole owner of M. J. Emden and Sons, a trading company doing international business already at the beginning of the 20th century.

In just one decade Emden opened numerous large department stores across Europe, including the Allas in Stockholm, Kaufhaus Oberpollinger in Munich and Kaufhaus Poetsch in Hamburg. He also had a share in Berlin’s KaDeWe (Kaufhaus des Westens – the "Department Store of the West").

With a registered capital of one million Hungarian crowns, Emden opened the Corvin Department Store in Budapest on 1 March 1926. For the standards of the era it was absolutely luxurious. The building constructed in classicist style based on Zoltán Reiss’ plans was a real eye-catcher with its pompous facades reminding of a palace. Glazed arches of fantastic proportions gave the impression of a two-storey building from the outside, while more than four floors were hidden behind.

The interior was as impressive. Visitors were greeted by a glass entry hall behind the front door. Sculptors Fülöp Ö. Beck and Szigfrid Pongrácz were commissioned to add figurative elements to the elaborate interior design. Corvin was also ahead of its time in technology. Only five years after the opening, in 1931, the first escalators in the country were installed there.

Shopping experience

Besides displaying all kinds of products, the consumers’ church offered a restaurant, coffee house and Fexpress photo service. The operators organised fashion shows and art exhibitions, making shopping at Corvin a special experience – it is a marketing tool that today’s shopping malls are still using with success. Many Budapest citizens took a stroll in Corvin just for pleasure, especially in the afternoons when customers were entertained with court music.

World War II ended the store’s glory days. The capital’s once-largest department store was damaged in fighting and partly burned out, so it had to close its doors in 1944.

Four years later it was renovated and reopened. Being nationalised in the meantime, it was known as Budapest Large Department Store. In 1956, during the Hungarian Uprising, the building was severely damaged again, and in the following years its former beauty was not re-established.

From 1966 it continued business under the name Centrum or Centrum-Corvin Department Store. It was decided to cover the crumbling façade of the upper floor with an aluminium shell to give the shoppers’ paradise a fresher look. As Népszabadság reported in December that year, opinions largely differed about the beauty of this construction. The building was referred to as "cold storage", a "tin can" or an "aluminium box".

Façade renovation plans

For 50 years, the magnificent but decaying facade slumbered under its protective metal armour. Hidden from the eyes of the public, it slept through the communist-ending political change and subsequent privatisation. Numerous modern shopping malls were established in Budapest in the 1990s and 2000s, and Corvin could not compete. More and more selling spots stayed empty. Today a supermarket, bookstore and pawn shop are operating in the building. In summertime from 2007 to 2018 the upper floors and roof housed a popular music club called Corvintető. The cultural centre MÜSZI had its seat in the third floor between 2012 and 2017.

Plans for a possible renovation of the Corvin have been considered since 1990 but there was never the finance, as the profitability of such a venture was unsure. However, the District VIII local government announced last March that finally at least the façade would be renovated. The national government is supporting the renovation with an investment of HUF 300 million.

As the first step, the aluminium shell was removed at the end of May. The renewal of the historical façade should be finished by the end of this year. The roof, electrical cables, elevators and other internal mechanics and the fire protection system will all be renewed. Only time will tell if Budapest’s once-biggest department store will turn profitable again, and whether it can relive its golden age of the first half of the 20th century.

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