Palais Epstein: Architectural Jewel on the Ring Road

The architectural design, rich furnishings and exceptionally good state of preservation make the building an outstanding example of 19th century Ringstrasse architecture. Since 2005, it has been used by the Parliament.

One Family, One House

The Palais was built in the historicism style on behalf of the Epstein family between 1868 and 1871. Coming from Prague, the Epsteins were entrepreneurs who became wealthy with the flourishing textile industry at the end of the 18th century.

Over decades, the family shifted its economic and private focus to Vienna, the most important commercial and financial center of the monarchy.

After the sale of their factories, the banking business became the central focus of the family's economic activities. Leopold Epstein thus became the richest banker in Vienna and the director of the National Bank. 

Gustav Epstein: Builder - Philanthropist - Knight

Leopold's son Gustav - the builder of today's Palais - inherited a fortune of around 10 million gulden after his father's death, or just under 100 million euros in today's terms. He took over the company in 1864 with little pleasure, as his interests lay primarily in the cultural field. Following his father's will, he nevertheless continued to operate the banking business and founded the Epstein bank.

Gustav Epstein was also considered a philanthropist. This is documented in examples such as follows: There was a separate room in his bank where a specific employee processed requests for help from the needy. 30,000 gulden (equivalent to more than 300,000 euros today) per year were earmarked for this purpose. Reportedly, a common saying at the time was: "The emperor gives one kreuzer, Epstein gives four."

Gustav Epstein was also a generous donor and supporter of the monarchy. In gratitude for his donations, Emperor Franz Joseph bestowed Epstein with the Order of the Iron Crown 3rd Class in 1866 and with it the title of nobility. From then on, he was called Gustav Ritter von Epstein.

Patron of the Arts

Gustav Ritter von Epstein was especially committed not only to social welfare but also to the arts. He actively participated in the founding and furnishing of the Museum of Art and Industry - today's Museum of Applied Art. During the construction of the new stock exchange, as a member of the stock exchange council and the building committee, he played a decisive role in the selection of Theophil Hansen as architect.

Epstein was also a board member of the Vienna Music Society (Wiener Musikverein), and his name is carved in the foyer of the building. But his love of art - and of Italy - is evidenced above all by his Ringstrasse Palais, which also housed his rich art collections. 

After the Stock Exchange crash of 1873, Gustav Ritter von Epstein lost his entire fortune. The family continued to live in the Palais until 1877, moving into a rented apartment soon after that. Three years later, in 1879, Gustav Epstein died. Descendants of the family can be found in Budapest today. 

The Architects: Hansen and Wagner

The builder had two favorite architects: Theophil Hansen and Otto Wagner. Epstein entrusted the established Ringstrasse architect, Hansen, with the design work and the young Wagner with the construction management of the Palais. It is nowadays considered their most significant joint project.

Theophil Hansen was one of the most important representatives of the historicism characteristic of Vienna's Ringstrasse. With his architectural masterpiece, the Vienna Parliament Building, he left behind perhaps the most profound testimony to the historicist architecture of the Ringstrasse era.

Otto Wagner had transcended historicism and made a name for himself with several exemplary buildings such as the Vienna Postal Savings Bank. Above all, however, he was considered a pioneering architect through his theoretical writings and the training of numerous students important for modernist architecture. 

Unlike many other private houses on Vienna's Ringstrasse, the Palais has been largely preserved in its original artistic and structural state. Completed in 2005, the renovation took over four years. 

The Palais of the Ringstrasse: Symbols of Belief in Progress

On December 20, 1857, Emperor Franz Joseph ordered the demolition of Vienna's fortifications. In their place, a magnificent boulevard was to be built, lined with monumental public and private buildings.

The "Gründerzeit" period of enormous economic growth was also characterized by industrialization and an unshakable belief in progress. It began in the mid-19th century and ended abruptly with the Stock Exchange crash of 1873.

Palais Epstein was built at the height of the Gründerzeit and is the last Ringstrasse Palais to have survived largely unchanged.

Between Prestige and Pragmatism

The facade of Palais Epstein was designed by Theophil Hansen in the style of Strict Historicism. In keeping with the wishes of the building's owner, Gustav Ritter von Epstein, the exterior’s noble restraint does not foreshadow the interior’s splendor and pomp.

The design of the exterior facade becomes increasingly refined towards the top, thus enhancing the effect. Designed to serve as an entrance for carriages, the vestibule could be used to drive up to the fixed staircase.  

Similar to the case of the Parliament Building, Hansen conceived both the architecture and the furnishings of the Palais Epstein in the representative rooms of the bel-etage.

The Gründerzeit class differences were reflected in the building‘s structure. The ruling class lived on the Ringstrasse - the servants at the back. The furnishings of the state rooms, located at the front of the house, still show a variety of valuable materials and techniques. Depending on the room and function, Hansen chose different combinations and colors. The imposing rooms are still popular today for official occasions of the Parliament.

In the House of the Epsteins

The Palais was the headquarters of the Epstein family for a long time. Afterwards, many different institutions used the house as an official residence, office building, or for other purposes.

Bank and Illustrative Residence

In January 1872, the Epstein family moved into the Palais and lived there until 1877. Like many other Ringstrasse Palais buildings, it served as both a residence and a place of business. At the time of the Epsteins, the ground floor housed bank and business premises, some of which were rented to others. Until around 1883, the rented business premises also had their own entrance, which was probably walled. This is evidenced by old photographs of the Palais.

The grand staircase still leads to the second floor, the so-called bel-etage. This is where the Epstein family lived: Gustav and his wife Emilie, as well as their children Friedrich, Caroline and Margarethe. Considered revolutionary for aristocratic circles at that time, the Epstein couple shared a bedroom. 

In addition to the Epstein family, the son's governesses and tutors also lived in the house - albeit in rooms at the back. Almost without daylight and with a view into the atrium, they were, together with the servants' quarters, certainly the most uncomfortable rooms in the Palais.

Prestigious Event Venue

The second and third floors were occupied by rental apartments. The three central rooms on the second floor were used exclusively for representation purposes. Music enthusiasts, the Epstein couple regularly invited guests to musical evenings. The Epsteins received their guests in the richly-decorated reception hall on the bel-etage. From there, they could also enter the ballroom.

Pianists such as Clara Schumann and Anton Rubinstein often performed works of Schubert and Beethoven there. When the hustle and bustle of the festivities became too strenuous for the master of the house, he liked to retreat to the winter garden, which was directly connected to the ballroom. This was furnished with works from Gustav Epstein's collection of paintings, which he also made accessible to the public as part of the 1873 World Exhibition. 

Later Use of the Palais

After Gustav Ritter von Epstein had to sell the Palais in 1876 as a result of the Stock Exchange crash of 1873, the building was engaged in very different ways. The list of its various uses is a reflection of the history of the last 130 years.

Changing usage

Palais & Parliament: Offices, Democracy Workshop, Event Venue

In 1998, Parliament passed a unanimous resolution to use the Palais for parliamentary purposes. In 2002, the building was restored to its original condition and ceremoniously reopened in 2005.

Since then, it has served as another dependency of the Parliament in the immediate vicinity. During the period of the parliamentary renovation, it housed the Parliamentary Library, among other things.