Our house

Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
Trip End Sep 01, 2011

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Friday, July 18, 2003

Several folks have written and asked about the house that we live in. Based on a little research and talking with the landlords, Rob and Johan, Chris has been able to piece together some information. So let's go on a tour through time (well sort of and feel free to skip those paragraphs that are not interesting):

The house we live in was built between 1650 and 1725 on the Singel Canal. The rear part was built in the middle 17th century while the front part was probably built in the first part of the 18th century. The Singel is the innermost of the four major canals encircling the old city center. All were dug at once starting from the Brouwersgracht (literal translation: Brewer's Canal) on the west side in +/-1615. It was part of the beginning of an expansion that quadrupled the size of Amsterdam in one lifetime! The house is a typical canal house of the era that was a merchant's house (home/warehouse) with a neck gable. Sticking out of from the top of the gable is a Hijsbalk (hoist beam) that was used in our house till the late 1970s to bring merchandise into the warehouse area for storage. This is also why the center windows are larger and open as doors into the house.

This was the merchant's home and warehouse. The original owner's coat of arms is at the top of the gable and consists of a shield with three bumblebees and three oak leaves (anyone knowing any history pertaining to this coat of arms, pls. Email me). This would allow visitors to locate the house before the French introduced the street numbering system in the 18th century.

The city center of Amsterdam typically consists of separate houses such as this; each house with its own roof, front door and facade. The houses may share common walls or be separated by several inches. The canal house is characterized by top floors in the front on the canal designed to serve as storage space for commodities. This is where we live: the top three floors (with additional lofts on the 3rd. floor). Remember trade determined the Amsterdam cityscape; water being an essential feature. Merchandise was brought from trading place in the West and East Indies on large sea going ships that docked in the harbor area. From there the items were transferred to barges and brought by canals to the houses.

Other characteristics of our house and that of the majority of houses in the city center are:

Narrow plots (25-30 feet wide) resulting in deep and elongated ground plans (consequently the roofs are at right angles to the facades, which led to the development of the gable top to hide the pitched or saddle roof in back when viewed from the Canal and street)

Unity of sizes and use of materials (small differences in height, i.e. four floors and lofts for houses on the main canals, standard width, i.e., 3 window bays, red brick or sandstone facades with sandstone ornaments decorating top gable and entrance, heavy timber framing, wood plank floors, and windows with multiple panes of glass)

Facades leaning slightly forward and cantilevering to keep rain off and allow merchandise to be hauled up the front without banging into the facade

Hard stone stoops and cellar shops or storage areas

The layout of our house is as with most common types of Amsterdam canal houses, developed in the course of the 18th century. The typical canal house consists of a "voorhuis", the front rooms, closest to the canal, and an "achterhuis", the rooms at the back of the building facing a garden. An inner courtyard traditionally separated these two elemental parts of a 17th and 18th century canal house.

Usually the first floor of the voorhuis has two rooms, the front and the back rooms, connected by double doors. Moreover, each room is accessible from the corridor. The toilets were originally located in the inner courtyard. A long corridor goes all the way down from the front door of the voorhuis, along the courtyard to the "achterhuis". Usually the corridor was richly decorated with stucco ornaments, while an elegant staircase, about halfway down the house, formed the vertical continuation of the corridor.

The well-structured set-up allowed visitors to take in the basic set-up of the house at a single glance. At the end of the corridor, there often was a beautifully molded door, giving access to the achterhuis. The achterhuis was given an especially prominent place in the 18th century canal house. It was the location of the large parlor, or great room, which was as wide as the entire house and afforded a fine view of the garden. Through the large parlor windows one could often see the coach house or garden house built at the back of the garden to round off the well-balanced architectural set-up.

Our landlords, Rob and Johan have their home in the achterhuis of the building. Their living room is in the large parlor and it, as well as the original kitchen, still overlooks a large peaceful garden that has many flowers and trees where birds come and play (and try to hide from the watchful eyes of the kitty).

Rob operates an art gallery, which occupies the two front rooms on the ground floor of the voorhuis. These rooms would have been used as offices for the original merchant too.

Here is an annimation that shows how the house would have been constucted.

As the house remained a warehouse up until the later part of the 20th century, many elements of the original warehouse function remain. You can still see wear on the front window frames from the rope used to haul things in through the windows. The 1-inch thick wood flooring planks still retain much of the original finish. An electric motor was installed in the front loft above the 3rd floor to make it easier to bring stuff up. The motor can be operated from any of the upper floors by a rope that runs from the loft through holes in the floor. As a warehouse, the building had to be very strong. Heavy timbers hold up the floors and frame the saddle roof.

The house has seen few major renovations over the years. Some of the windows and the front door were updated in the early 19th century. Here is a picture of the house with its neighbors from WWII. Except for cars being parked on the street and the trees being bigger, little has changed the view:

After WWII, the house as well as surrounding area continued to be warehousing and office area. During the 1980s and 1990s, offices began to move to the outer part of Amsterdam due in part to the intentional urban plan to make cars not as welcome in the city center. Many of the houses in the area became mixed residential and office space. After Rob and Johan purchased the house in the late 1970s, they sympathetically converted the former warehouse space for gallery and residential use by adding bathrooms and a kitchen. They returned the achterhuis to its original function as a primary residence. In this way, this canal house has been preserved for future generations to enjoy and it continues to be a part of the historic fabric that makes Amsterdam so enjoyable and charming.

Thanks for looking!

Thanks to Bert van Sas for the 3D model of an Amsterdam canal house as well as the City of Amsterdam historical archives.
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