FERENC HEIMANN – Bricklayer of Wine Cellars

Ferenc Heimann’s family can date its presence in the city of Szekszárd and its surroundings back 10 generations. Their antecedents arrived in Hungary in the 1780’s from Stuttgart of Württemberg, based on available information. After the expulsion of the Turks, the German settlers (Donauschwaben) arriving in many parts of Hungary had the role of repopulating the ghost-regions and resuming agricultural production. For this reason, it was mostly peasants and farmers who came to start a new life rebuilding the villages and towns. Wine-growing and oenology was a basic part of  everyday life for the Swabians (Germans) of Szekszárd right from the very beginning, and the Heimann family is also connected to this sector and its centuries-old traditions. The most characteristic signs of this heritage – in amongst the rows of vines – were the press-houses and the rows of wine-cellars dug or built into the silt walls.

Within the family, the only one to take up the oenologist’s trade was his brother Zoltán, who has made the Heimann family vineyard well known. It is recognised all over the country and internationally, as part of the Hungarian wine economy’s revival after the changes to the political system that took place in 1990. Ferenc’s interests turned towards architecture and building in his youth and he chose his schools accordingly. He left the Mihály Polláck of Pécs Vocational School with a technician qualification, which in those days would have allowed him to plan houses on his own as a quasi-architect. To get some experience in construction and the building trade itself, he started working as a bricklayer entrepreneur. A 3 year period spent in Germany beginning in 1993 brought plenty of new experiences whilst he worked there as a foreman on housing developments, but instead of bringing his work experience home he planned to stay abroad indefinitely. Unfortunately, the work permit rules prevented this and he was forced to come back home for 2 years. In the end, his planned return to Germany never happened as life brought along something completely different.

In his life working out differently, the brick-domed cellar that he started building at the request of his younger brother, played a key role. The precedent and model for it was their grandparents’ domed cellar that had been filled with concrete during the Communist period. Even though he had constructed smaller barrel-vaulted cellars before, the considerable 4 by 4 metre span posed such an interesting challenge for him that he resolved to build it entirely unaided. After a whole month of trials and researching professional literature from a hundred years earlier, this first proper example allowed him to experiment with a long lost technique from first principles. He subsequently improved to reach excellence in his later works, making the cellars even more decorative at the same time.

The finished domed cellar at the Heimann vineyard was viewed as a masterpiece and this brought in new work all in a row, as the sudden new appearance of this craft knowledge met the basic needs of this reviving sector. During 40 years of Communism, family vineyards had withered away and factories operated instead as part of the state-run agriculture and food industry. In the meantime, in the surroundings of Szekszárd a lot of cellars that were out of use were simply filled with earth or concrete, which illustrates how much heritage and tradition was devastated among the limited possibilities of the era. The transformation of the political and economical system allowed changes to this almost completely closed process and so the reopening of family vineyards and the start up of new private companies escalated the demand for orders. The expanding circle of clients came from all over Hungary and even beyond the borders, from Austria, Germany and Slovenia. There were times when he was working with 45 builders, as he was the one building most of the new wine-cellars in Hungary.

What is even more important than the number of authentically-built cellars is that Ferenc Heimann’s lifes work is inseparably tied to the latest renaissance of the Szekszárd and Hungarian wine, making this movement more genuine and providing an unbroken link to its forgotten traditions.

The Evolution of Heimann Cellars

Wine cellars of Szekszárd were originally hollowed out of the loess walls of the hillsides. If the auger-hole was narrower than 1 metre, they were made without brickwork, but if they were greater then barrel-vaults were built. The more characteristic type, vaulted cellars, were usually 1.80 m wide, which took into consideration the size of the basic Hungarian-type 70 litre barrel and allowed space for them to be moved down to the cellars and for handling them as well.

The barrel vaulted part of the example cellar that Ferenc Heimann made for his brother was planned to have a width of 3.60 meters, double the traditional width, and making it possible to organise the barrels in two rows. Although the resulting dome at the intersection of the barrel vaults was a copy of a previous example, it was a curio both in its execution and functionality compared to traditional cellars. Despite the difficulties of the actual construction, the dome had an additional importance: as well as being a functional part of the vineyard’s technology and unique system of barrels, the dome made it possible to entertain visitors at a table, providing a suitable space for wine-tasting and dining. Apart from just personal use, this could make a  charming place for catering and in fact this extra feature stood behind the sudden, huge demand for these cellars. In later works, a continuous goal was to increase the spans and to fulfil a perpetual desire for innovation in creation by building more and more special structural types. Many things thwarted this ambition: starting with the client’s wallet to the technical necessities. In this way, the laboursome groin vaults that put loading on the bricks turned into constructionally much simpler domes or Baroque vaults.

In increasing the spans and room sizes by leaps and bounds, building regulations also played an important role. Ferenc Heimann’s team also built cellars using the traditional technique of hollowing out the hillside, a metre at a time, by excavating the soil and supporting the cavity by brick from below. Later on however, this kind of tunnelling technique needed permission from the Mining Engineering Authority, which massively increased the administration required for construction and created far too many difficulties for the preparation and execution of cellar-building. This had the effect of making it much easier to excavate all of the soil above the floor area of the cellar, to build the structure and then to back-fill the soil afterwards, typically to a depth of 2 metres. Using this method, limitations in size also disappear, as these were derived from the self-supporting properties of the loess soil. Breaking away from these constraints meant the previously separate tunnels could now be joined together making it possible, to create the same gross built area within a substantially smaller floor space, opening the gates for the building of big spanned multiply-bayed wine-cellars.

It has always been a major consideration to be able to use the event spaces as much as possible. This was the main reason behind the endeavour for better results, imagining large events such as weddings, for example. It might be quaint, but this is why the starting point for the design was the visibility of the bride.

Planning and Building

Ferenc Heimann usually had a free hand in the exact design of the cellars, harmonising the client’s agenda with his own ideas. He also drew up the plans, for which he only created freehand sketches. He says, apart from that fact, he planned the whole cellar to its smallest detail so much so that he could even walk around it in his mind. The planning process didn’t stop there however, new ideas could prompt to him create custom solutions, forming the design as he went along just as a sculptor does with his work. For instance, the very high arch of the vaults at the Gothic-style cellar in Csopak came about when the excavator worker accidentally dug the site for the cellar 2 metres deeper than it was planned to be. Instead of taking the obvious step of filling up the site with soil, Heimann decided to keep as it was and to build higher lancet arches as part of the creative process, resulting in much more special building. This way of working results in lot of changes to the drawing plans, so there is a need for extra co-operation on the part of the architect and other designers as well, as the company only takes part in the official architectural and construction planning as an advisor.

The Use of Materials and Common Features

Ferenc Heimann’s building method is synonymous with sticking closely to traditions, existing roots and authenticity. As a result, his firm’s cellars were all built exclusively in brick, in the Szekszárd region. However, where it was traditionally characteristic, for instance in the Balaton upperland he also boldly used stone. Although it is quite widespread nowadays, the Heimann company never turns stamped bricks outwards, except for in the position of the vaults’ keystones, as originally the stamp was only information for the bricklayer about the origin and quality of the brick, and was meant to be decoration for the final surface. It has been an unvarying ‘signature’ of their work to build a small window or niche in the form of a Latin cross out of a few pieces of brick, which appears in every project without exception.

The first use of salvaged brick is also connected to the St Donát Cellar and Wine House. The client was decidedly insistent on using the material which was originally thought to be of dubious quality. Heimann accepted the commission with a great deal of reservation after agreeing with the owner that they would only build the cellar using the brick from a demolition, if he never told anyone who the master bricklayer was. The result surprised him so much that they have been only using large size salvaged brick ever since. Although the bricks coming from all types of demolition are of varying size and completeness, they perform advantageously when used to build vaults as they can better bear directional forces that arise there. One reason for this may be the simple fact that those bricks which have survived well are guararanteed to be of good quality, and that means they have excellent rigidity. The other factor comes from the difference in production method, which means that newer small-size bricks (12.5 x 25 x 6.5mm) are much more susceptible to sideward forces causing them to lose their front face much more often, resulting in an imperfect surface. Besides which, the large size brick (14 x 29 x 7mm) which is not produced anymore, is more practical from the point of view of use of material as well as requiring fewer joints. On the whole, from experience, well-handled salvaged material enables much quicker and finer work and in the same time reduces costs.

As well as the careful building of the structure and similarly careful selection of materials, it has been always outstandingly important to use appropriate lighting technology by working in partnership with relevant masters who produce associated ceramic objects and lamps. In both cases, forming long-term relationships with the same designers was the expedient way. It has been always József Nyúl’s responsibility to create cosy lighting solutions in every project that highlight the monumentality of the brick structures, while ceramic decorations and furniture have been the result of ….. ‘s handiwork.

Retirement and Generational Change

Ferenc Heimann has been retired from the masonry and construction industry since the end of the year 2014. His decision was obviously influenced by the economic crisis and a series of unpaid  for works, however it would be difficult to call him disillusioned in any way. They run the White Cow Bed and Breakfast at the foot of the hills of Szekszárd, close to a number of cellars built by him. He would only see the point in taking up a trowel again, if he could build something unique once more. If there was a client, who could stand a little experimentation in the search for something special, for instance the technical realisation of the herringbone brick pattern method as part of a huge dome.

Luckily continuity is guaranteed through his foster-son who is now fully grown. Csaba Heimann has had a great schooling, being on all the construction sites since the age of 14, learning all that he could over a twenty year period. Over the past few years, he was the one who effectively supervised the buildings and the workers, and in recent years he has run his own company. In addition to the serious amount of work experience he has had, he also graduated in civil engineering at the Mihály Polláck College in Pécs, writing a thesis about traditional vaulted structures of course. The examiners at the diploma thesis aural did not have an easy job interviewing him about a long-lost technology that hadn’t been taught for decades. It equated to doing static calculations for a structure operating with only stressed inner forces using the current Eurocode standards. One thing is for certain: it is much more straightforward to plan and build based on a carefully developed method and 30 years of experience. Similarly, Csaba is full of hope regarding the future, believing that new challenges will appear and even greater spans will be achieved in the near future.

Most important works

  • St Donát Wine-cellar and House, Csopak
  • Fritz Wine House and Pension, Szekszárd
  • Heimann Family Estate, Szekszárd
  • Liszt Wine-cellars, Szekszárd
  • Takler Wine-cellar, Szekszárd
  • Vesztergombi Wine-cellar, Szekszárd
  • Széchenyi Wine-cellar, Szentgyörgyvár
  • Römer Wine-cellar, Hévíz
  • Vincze Béla Vineyard, Eger
  • Strobler Hof Hotel, Salzburg, Austria
  • Koralevics Károly (private owner), Csopak
  • Bodri Wine-Cellars, Szekszárd
  • Eszterbauer Vineyard, Szekszárd
  • Mészáros Wine House and Cellar, Szekszárd
  • Wunderlich Wine Treasure and Prospect Cellar, Villány

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