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The Hungarian House: Revitalizing history and culture on the Upper East Side


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  • Hungarian House on East 82nd Street remains a cultural hub for Hungarian immigrants. Photo: Anna Brooks




  • Yorkville’s Hungarian House, on East 82nd Street, is among the last remaining outposts in a neighborhood once known as “Little Hungary.” Photo: Anna Brooks




BY ANNA BROOKS

It started out as an asylum for refugees fleeing Europe after the Hungarian Revolution erupted in 1956.

Then it became a place of prestige, a high-class, members-only club visited by people like Nobel Prize-winning physicist Dennis Gabor and József Antall, Hungary’s first democratically-elected prime minister.

And then, it almost wasn’t a place at all.

For years, the bright, red-bricked, house has struggled, repeatedly facing closure as the Yorkville neighborhood around it gentrified.

“In the ‘90s, the house started to lose its identity,” Ildiko Nagy, the director of the Hungarian House, said. “People moved away from what was known as ‘Little Hungary’ in the area. Other immigrants started to get too old to participate, some of them died, and suddenly life was different at the house.”

The house is now one of the last pieces of living history for Hungarians on the Upper East Side, which for a time teemed with Eastern European expats.

“Little Hungary” had its genesis on East Houston Street, where émigrés from the central European country first settled, revitalizing empty homes and storefronts into Hungarian cafés and restaurants. Many of those residents would move from the East Village to Yorkville in the early 1900s, and 79th Street — dubbed Goulash Avenue — was alive with Hungarian butchers, bakeries, churches and markets.

When the Hungarian Revolution broke out, thousands fled the violence and flooded into urban centers, including New York City. Intended to be a “home for Hungarian culture in the free world,” as a library brochure from 1960 notes, the halls of Hungarian House served as headquarters for The First Aid for Hungary during the revolution, and for years afterward.

“Seeing as they couldn’t go back to Hungary at the time, immigrants needed a home, a house, a community center,” Nagy, 38, explained. “That was the beginning of the life of the Hungarian House.”

Repression of free expression in Hungary at the time made the house’s mission to preserve history and heritage especially crucial. Committed members of the American Hungarian Library and Historical Society began collecting: rare historical volumes, 16th century books, top secret government correspondences, diplomatic documents, oil paintings and English news clippings more than 300 years old. In all, thousands of pages detailing 1,000 years of Hungarian history also found a home at the Hungarian House.

Years passed, tensions settled, and the house transformed from refuge to Hungarian high society. For the next three decades, the house operated as a private social club, an exclusive spot where the wealthy would congregate for afternoon teas and lavish parties.

But then the 1990s hit and, like much of Manhattan, Yorkville began to change. One by one, the Hungarian businesses that had once thrived on the Upper East Side disappeared, leaving the three-story splash of red on 82nd Street near Third Avenue one of the last bits of Hungary left in the neighborhood.

The house had survived, but its existence was looking increasingly precarious — many had either given up or simply forgotten about the house. But there were some, like Michael Ginsburg, a truba player for the acclaimed Balkan band Zlatne Uste (“Golden Lips”), who never did.

“When we play at Hungarian House, it’s like a home gig,” said Ginsburg, 69, who has performed at the Hungarian House for almost 30 years. “We’ve been using their space for a long, long time, and at one point we were the only ones.”

No longer the prestigious social club it once was, the house now depends on renting its space to groups like Zlatne Uste. But not so different from all those years ago, the space still remains a cultural hub for Hungarian immigrants in New York.

Zsuzsa Rozgonyi works with the Arany János Hungarian School, a Saturday school that teaches K-12 students Hungarian language, culture and history. After almost 60 years operating out of a Hungarian church in New York, the school suddenly lost its space.

“The Hungarian House was gracious enough to take us in,” Rozgonyi, 41, said. “There’s a new generation coming up, and there will be a need for a school such as ours.”

Rozgonyi immigrated from Hungary 20 years ago, and said she’s witnessed gentrification dissolve much of Hungarian culture on the Upper East side over the years. That’s why, she said, those like herself and Nagy have devoted their free time to helping the Hungarian community regain its identity through family programs like the Saturday school.

“There’s fewer and fewer people in the area who identify as Hungarian, so the program is very special in many ways,” she explained. “To see my 7-year-old son go on stage and be able to recite a poem in Hungarian, which is not his native language, that was really special to me. I don’t know if he realizes how special it was.”

Today, the house is one of the only active Hungarian cultural centers left in New York. On weekends, the ballroom is filled with Hungarian scouts and students. Other nights see Hungarian folk dancers leap and twirl beneath the old, tavern-style chandeliers. In the library below, film screenings, poetry readings and Hungarian language courses take place among the books.

For the new, for the old, for the ghosts in the halls, history lives on at the Hungarian House.





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