Home/ A Brief History of the Ernst House

A Brief History of the Ernst House

Lajos Ernst (1872-1937), renowned patron of the arts, art collector, later chief government counsellor, was among the founders of the National Salon in 1894, and between 1901 and 1909 he was the director of this association of Hungarian artists and art patrons. The idea of the Ernst House was born in the intellectual community of the nearby Japán Café (today the Writers Bookshop) artists table after he had been removed from his position. 

Photo: Capa Center

The building 

The property at 8 Nagymező street was bought in 1909 by Lajos Ernst. The double-yard, one-storied house on the plot burnt down several times, probably due to accidents at the glass foundries of the Hungarian United Glass Factories Ltd., which had been operating here since 1892. The art collector had a huge tenement built on the site, which was completed by 29 April 1912. The first five-storied building in Budapest had a cinema on the ground floor, a museum housing Ernst’s collection, and temporary exhibitions on the first floor, and tenement flats and two studios on the upper floors – in which two of the collector’s painter friends, Adolf Fényes and István Zádor worked.  

The style represents a more restrained form of Art Nouveau, its solutions are more reminiscent of the patrician houses of the Renaissance in northern Europe and the German Lowlands. Architect Gyula Fodor was inspired by Ödön Lechner’s Post Office Savings Bank when designing the upper floors of the building, with this gesture he wanted to express his deep respect for Lechner. 

Ernst entrusted the design of the museum to his famous artist friends, regulars at the Japán Café: the interior designer, Elek Falus was a graphic artist and craftsman, the stone benches were designed by architect Ödön Lechner, the large glass window in the staircase was made by glass artist Miksa Róth, based on the designs of painter József Rippl-Rónai. Above the Art Nouveau entrance there are historicizing reliefs of renaissance era King Matthias and Queen Beatrix, this stylistic duality expresses that, for Ernst, the historical and contemporary elements coexisted well, not only in his art collection but also in the design of his building. (Copies of the reliefs by the Italian sculptor Benedetto da Maiano from 1476 were made by László Vaszary. The original works of art can be seen in the Renaissance Lapidarium of the Hungarian National Gallery.) 

After the outbreak of the First World War, the museum was temporarily converted into a military hospital by the Master Builders’ Association and Society, with the support of Ernst. In 1914, in addition to the wards, a bathroom and an operating theatre were built in the exhibition halls. As the statue of Petőfi in the Hungarian poets’ room could not be moved, it remained the only piece of art among the white hospital beds. 

Cinema and theatre 

Although Ernst had originally planned to open a café on the ground floor, he eventually decided to create a cinema. The Tivoli Cinema opened on 7 December 1912 as the capital’s largest cinema of the time, with seven hundred seats. The ornate interiors were designed by the architect Sándor Skutetzky, commissioned by the operating company Projectograph Motion Picture and Machine Works Ltd. 

In 1942, the name Tivoli was changed to Tinódi. From 1944, it was one of the cinemas in the capital that Jews were allowed to visit, only during designated hours, wearing a yellow star. From 1991, the cinema was again called Tivoli until 30 December 1992, when it closed for good after the screenings of Taxi Driver and A nagy postarablás (The Great Post Office Robbery). 

In 1998, the Budapest Chamber Theatre replaced it with a 180-seat venue called the Tivoli Theatre. The theatre’s last performance, The Streetcar Named Desire, was performed on 7 May 2012. 


The museum on the first floor was opened at noon on 12 May 1912 by Count János Zichy, Minister of Culture. The museum exhibited partly Ernst’s private collection, but also hosted temporary exhibitions, first showing paintings of Pál Szinyei-Merse.  

Lajos Ernst, the son of a wealthy flour merchant, began collecting lithographic plates and engravings at the age of fifteen. As a collector, he was mainly interested in works depicting Hungarian historical events, so the rooms of the permanent exhibition were arranged according to Hungarian historical periods, such as the Age of the Chieftains of the Seven Tribes, the Age of the Kings of the Árpád House, or the King Matthias Room. Then came the rooms dedicated to domestic arts: musicians’ and actors’ room, poet Sándor Petőfi room, Portraits of Hungarian writers, and Self-portraits of Hungarian painters.   

In the foreword to the museum’s first catalogue, Ernst set out his aims as follows: “To collect all that is the memory of Hungarian culture, so that young people can learn to appreciate their past, and thus serve their future.”  

From 1917 until the end of his life, Ernst held auctions twice a year with the assistance of art writer Béla Lázár. Ernst intended to finance his passion for collecting partly from the proceeds of his tenement flats and later from these auctions, but at the end of the 1920s the economic crisis and his excessive purchases left him financially ruined. After years of negotiating in vain with the state to sell his collection, which would have paid off his mounting debts, he threw himself into the Danube in the spring of 1937. His collection was auctioned in 1939, however, thanks to purchases by Hungarian museums, many of the works of art are now enriching the collections of various Hungarian public institutions.  

After his death, the institution underwent frequent name changes: it operated under the name Count Almásy-Teleki Éva’s Artistic Institute (1939–45), Institute of Arts and Commerce (1945), and Art and Antique Trade Company (1945–1948). Later it functioned as a branch of the Kunsthalle for decades, hosting countless successful exhibitions and art events. In 2013, Hungarian photography was given a new exhibition space here, with the opening of the Robert Capa Contemporary Photography Centre, meaning these spaces have been used as art exhibition spaces for more than 110 years.