Károly Czibere, one of the many undersecretaries of the ministry of human resources, announced that the István Károlyi Children’s Center, situated in the town of Fót, will be closed by the summer of 2018. The centerpiece of the Children’s Village, as it used to be called, is the Károlyi Mansion, built in the first half of the nineteenth century. Once upon a time the mansion was surrounded by a 600-hold (about 300-acre) magnificent park, but between 1960 and 1990 several buildings were erected around the mansion which served as dormitories, schools, a post office, even a store, as well as a dining area and kitchen facilities for the approximately 1,000 children who lived there.
Czibere’s announcement was not unexpected. Already in the 1980s experts argued that these huge facilities for children under public care were not the best solution for the children, even if they were well endowed. Instead, children were increasingly moved into smaller facilities or went to live with foster parents. By 2004, when Judit N. Kósa of Népszabadság visited the place, only 150 children were living in the facility under the watchful eyes of 180 people, 100 of whom were teachers. The mansion, in which in the 1950s all the children lived and studied, was by then already empty.
Kósa’s report indicated that the staff running the place wouldn’t mind getting rid of the mansion. They were, however, adamant about the surrounding buildings and the remainder of the park. Some of the buildings were used as schools, others functioned as service apartments for the staff. Ten hectares of the park were rented out to an equestrian therapy association. The Children’s Center, which receives little money from the government, badly needed this income.
One of the oddities of the current setup is the presence of the son of the last owner of the palace, László Károlyi, who rents an apartment in the Károlyi mansion. He has given up the idea of ever owning the mansion again, but he would like to negotiate an arrangement whereby his foundation, The Fót Foundation of the Károlyis, would get a 99-year lease on the mansion and the park. In that case, he told Judit N. Kósa, he was sure that he could get a loan for the reconstruction of the palace as a 35- to 40-room “castle hotel.” Almost 15 years ago Károlyi estimated the cost to be about $15 million. That was a very optimistic figure.
In January, when Undersecretary Czibere announced the shuttering of the Children’s Center, he was rather secretive about the government’s plans for the Károlyi Mansion. It will remain a palace on which the government will spend half a billion forints, but he claimed total ignorance about the “function” of the building.
It didn’t take long, however, before Fót was buzzing with the alleged news that the new owner of the palace will be Lőrinc Mészáros, the front man of Viktor Orbán. The rumor originated in “Fidesz circles” of Fót and was spread by those who are against closing the Children’s Center. The locals claim to know that the contract will be signed only after the elections of 2018.
On February 9 the SOS Children’s Fund organized a demonstration against closing the center, which will entail moving some disabled children to Zalaegerszeg and some troubled children to Hatvan. The Orbán government has no plans for the 39 refugee children who are currently housed in Fót.
I suspect that the rumor about Lőrinc Mészáros’s purchase of the Károly Mansion is without merit. My hunch is that László Károlyi is behind the government’s plans for the palace and the park in some way or other. As Index pointed out recently, several members of the Károlyi family have maintained very good relations with the Orbán government. Viktor Orbán and his friends seem to have a special affinity for wealthy historical families. The descendants of Archduke Joseph, Palatine of Hungary (1776-1847), who constitute the Hungarian branch of the large Habsburg family, are particular favorites. The Károlyis also seem to be in the good graces of the government. György Károly, who after 1990 moved back to Hungary and restored with his own money and some EU grants a gorgeous Károlyi mansion in Fehérvárcsurgó, was appointed Hungarian ambassador to France in 2014. József Károlyi, who lives in Switzerland, was just named government commissioner in charge of the 2021 World Hunting Expo to be held in Budapest. József Károlyi’s grandparents were reburied in Fót last October, and János Lázár delivered the eulogy. László Károlyi, who is a passionate huntsman and rider, apparently convinced János Lázár, who has become an avid hunter himself, that the Károlyi Mansion in Fót should be converted into an international equestrian tourist center. What Károlyi’s own role in this scheme is we don’t know, but I doubt very much that the Orbán government will sell the roof over László Károlyi’s head.
After 24.hu reported that “Orbán’s favorite foundation may build a riding school in the shuttered Children’s Village,” people who have a very low opinion of the Orbán government were outraged. This regime has committed an awful lot of despicable acts, but repurposing the Children’s Village, at least in my opinion, is not among them. It has been clear for some time that herding hundreds of children into one big center is pedagogically problematic. Moreover, it would be unsightly to leave scattered buildings around a renovated “castle hotel.” And without a park it would be impossible to have a profitable hotel-mansion. So, the buildings must be razed.
As for the riding school, ten hectares of the land belonging to the property are already leased to the International Children’s Aid Foundation, which is expanding its existing facilities for equestrian therapy. So far these plans are acceptable.
Of course, we don’t know who will reap the benefits of a very expensive reconstruction and renovation of a historic palace. If it’s one of the oligarchs, I will be outraged. But if, let’s say, a foundation that does good work, like a children’s aid society, benefits from it, I would find the arrangement satisfactory.
Finally, a footnote to the Orbán government’s fascination with the Károlyis. They may like György, László, and József, but they really hate Mihály, prime minister and later president of Hungary in 1918-1919, whom they blame for the Treaty of Trianon.