The buildings of Amsterdam started to deteriorate at the end of the 18th century. It was a period in which the Netherlands was suffering from poverty, which was evident from the many vacant and neglected buildings. At the end of the 19th century, the industrial revolution brought wealth, but also caused decline. In this case, the deterioration was not because property was vacant, but precisely the opposite: more people were moving from the countryside to the city. As a result, poor working class people lived in partitioned buildings and cramped housing built in rear courtyards. Working-class neighbourhoods such as the Jordaan, the Jewish quarter (Jodenbuurt) and the Western and Eastern Islands became impoverished and polluted. New working-class neighbourhoods emerged outside the old city.
Moreover, the new rich left behind the stench and filth of the overcrowded city to settle in the suburbs. Their homes on the canals were taken over by offices.
Working-class neighbourhoods such as the Jordaan, the Jewish quarter and the Western and Eastern Islands became impoverished and polluted.
Slum clearance and decline
In the early 20th century, the government concentrated on building new neighbourhoods in the suburbs to accommodate the working class. In a policy dubbed cityvorming (‘city formation’), the centre of Amsterdam was designated for offices, entertainment and industry. In 1930, for the entire city, a ‘General plan for housing improvement and slum clearance’ was published. Homes in the Jordaan, the Jewish quarter and the Western and Eastern Islands were to be replaced. A year later, a ‘Policy Document on Urban Development and Traffic’ was issued, which argued that the city should be dissected by major roads to make the centre accessible to traffic. However, the plan’s implementation was delayed by the economic crisis of the 1930s, which also worsened the deterioration of the city’s buildings.
What’s more, construction almost came to a standstill during the Second World War. The city centre hardly suffered any war damage, but the German occupation nevertheless resulted in even more dilapidated buildings. During the hongerwinter – the famine of 1944-45 – the timbers of the empty houses of former Jewish residents were used as fuel for the remaining Amsterdammers’ stoves, which meant that the buildings partially or entirely collapsed. “It looked as if the neighbourhood had withstood a heavy bombing: ruins and half-collapsed houses were everywhere,” ran the account in the city’s annual report of 1945.
Reconstruction and protests for conservation
After the Netherlands’ liberation from German occupation at the end of the Second World War, the city council set about resuming the redevelopment of the city. In 1949 work began on raising the ground for the construction of the future suburb of Slotermeer. The city centre – except for the heavily damaged Jewish quarter – was not seen as an immediate priority. In 1950, the Reconstruction Act was passed, giving the municipality greater powers to take action in the city centre.
In February 1953, the city council adopted four reconstruction plans for the city centre, in the Nieuwmarkt neighbourhood, Jodenbreestraat, Weesperstraat and the Eastern Islands. The reconstruction plans were to entail large-scale demolition. It was this that prompted the start of protests for the preservation of Amsterdam’s historic city centre. Two opposing camps began to emerge within the municipal government. In the same year, a Municipal Bureau for Monument Preservation (Bureau Monumentenzorg) was established as separate department under the director of Public Works. Ruud Meischke became its director, and together with Geurt Brinkgreve, he protested against the ‘city formation’ policy. Meischke and Brinkgreve were among the group who initiated the foundation of Stadsherstel.
Protests against plans to fill in canals
There was also growing awareness of the issue among the people of Amsterdam. Particularly in October 1954, with the launch of the infamous Kaasjager Plan, made by Police Commissioner Hendrik Kaasjager at the request of the city council. To accommodate the growing volume of traffic, Kaasjager proposed filling in a number of central canals, including Singel, Kloveniersburgwal and Geldersekade. The plan had a shock effect. People in Amsterdam began to see that the neglected old city was worth restoring. It was out of this counter-movement that Stadsherstel eventually emerged – although this was to take a number of years.
Growing awareness of the threat to the city
In the 1950s, Geurt Brinkgreve, a young artist and journalist, and the spiritual father of Stadsherstel, wrote a number of fiery articles in the weekly Elseviers Weekblad and the journal of the heritage organisation Bond Heemschut, but he was convinced that more had to be done. He wanted to harness the new enthusiasm for historic Amsterdam, but he knew that as a young artist he had little chance of changing the course of municipal policy. He contacted the president of the court, Joost van der Does de Willebois, better known to him as ‘Uncle Joost’. This prominent figure was an active member of Bond Heemschut and a nature conservationist.
Van der Does de Willebois wrote a letter explaining the problem to the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce, Daniël Delprat. Uncle Joost insisted on a meeting at Delprat’s home, where they could talk about the subject at leisure, rather than a quick half an hour at the office. During the ensuing conversation, the idea was born to form a broad and authoritative committee to enter into dialogue with the city council.
Reconstruction plans –
demolition of the Jewish quarter
This summer, an exhibition was held in our city’s historical museum, entitled ‘The City’s Vanishing Beauty’. This exhibition poses the question that burns in many hearts: is the beauty of Amsterdam fading and dying?
The Amsterdam Circle
One of the outcomes of the conversation between these two eminent Amsterdammers and the young artist was that Brinkgreve was to give a lecture on the threat to the city to the members of De Amsterdamsche Kring (The Amsterdam Circle).
Foundation of De Stad Amsterdam committee
The lecture by Brinkgreve – and by Alderman for Public Works and Urban Development Goos van ’t Hull, who was allowed to put forward the municipality’s side of the argument two weeks later – prompted the board of De Amsterdamsche Kring to implement the plan conceived by Van der Does de Willebois, Delprat and Brinkgreve to found a broad, authoritative committee. De Amsterdamsche Kring’s annual report states:
“These two lectures were therefore of great importance, because at the end of the year of this report, they led to the establishment of the De Stad Amsterdam committee [The City of Amsterdam committee], which, chaired by Jonkheer Six van Hillegom, aims to involve a large number of residents of Amsterdam from the most diverse categories of business and profession in solving the problem of how to maintain the characteristic beauty of Amsterdam while meeting the ever-increasing demands of economic life and of traffic.”
Although not mentioned, the leak of the Kaasjager Plan – in the same month in which the two lectures were held – will also have played a role in the formation of the De Stad Amsterdam committee.
On 14 January 1955, 12 members of De Amsterdamsche Kring met to establish the De Stad Amsterdam. Prior to this meeting, a letter had been written to 120 prominent figures asking them to sit on an identification committee.
During the meeting, the composition of the De Stad Amsterdam committee was agreed. In addition to the 12 initiators from De Amsterdamsche Kring, 10 others were included, among them Ton Koot of Bond Heemschut, and H. van Saane, who was to be crucial to the foundation of Stadsherstel. Brinkgreve became secretary, but since he had already openly stated his opposition to the municipal plans, it was decided for the time being not to make this public – “in order to avoid unnecessary friction”, as the minutes of the meeting put it. But much to the dismay of the chairman Six van Hillegom, the minutes were leaked to the press. It was therefore decided that it would be wiser to replace Brinkgreve as secretary. The lawyer J. Jolles accepted the position, but Brinkgreve, as deputy secretary, although never mentioned, actually carried out most of the work.
Not renovating houses but restoring the city
At the meeting of the De Stad Amsterdam committee of 6 July 1955, a ‘Memorandum in preparation for a City Restoration Society (Maatschappij Stadsherstel)’ was presented. It was written by Geurt Brinkgreve, with advice from the director of the Municipal Bureau for Monument Preservation, Ruud Meischke. The idea for a society for city restoration had been born during conversations between Brinkgreve and Meischke, who met in 1953 when Brinkgreve approached the newly established Bureau for Monument Preservation in search of information for an article about the repair of the war damage in conjunction with the preservation of historic monuments. The two men discussed the future of Amsterdam’s city centre.
Brinkgreve, who lived in an 18th-century workers’ house on Lijnbaansgracht, knew from his own experience and that of his friends and acquaintances that living in the old centre would be appealing to many people. Meischke knew that it was perfectly possible to fit the old houses with modern conveniences. They came to the conclusion that the Bureau for Monument Preservation should look at the matter from an entirely different perspective.
The first corner building
No longer the single interesting building in itself, but the house as part of a block, of a neighbourhood, indeed, of the entire old city with its own structure and proportions. This meant a turnaround from incidental house restoration to city restoration as the ultimate goal.
The bigger picture
Memorandum establishing Stadsherstel
Brinkgreve pointed out in his Memorandum that the current construction of public housing in suburbs was meeting a need, but that a standardised home wasn’t suitable for everyone, either due to their professional requirements (a home office, a studio) or living situation (single people, students). What’s more, people still wanted to live in atmospheric surroundings.
The old, neglected city centre could meet this need, but:
“The supply of good rented accommodation in the old city is limited, because the ownership of the property there is extremely fragmented and it is often in the hands of incapable or uninterested owners, who are resigned to the usual social and structural decay and prefer the higher rent for the industrial misuse of the properties to the cost of any repair necessary for conservation.”
Therefore, Brinkgreve continues:
“In view of the above considerations (…), it appears desirable to establish a society which, on a larger scale than has previously taken place, undertakes to provide for the aforementioned demand for housing through the repair, modernisation and management of old houses.”
To regenerate the city centre, Brinkgreve said, it was necessary to restore its residential character. At the same time this would help to solve the housing shortage, which in turn would bring tax benefits:
“The Society will work in the interest of improving public housing and will therefore apply for authorisation on the basis of Art. 6, par. 2 of the Housing Decree, so that it can also benefit from the tax privileges which are enjoyed by housing associations.”
The idea to make the new society a so-called ‘authorised institution’ in the service of public housing came from the previously mentioned H. van Saane. He was the founder and director of the Dutch Social Housing Association (Nederlandse Maatschappij voor Volkshuisvesting, NEMAVO), a public limited company in the field of public housing. At the meeting of 6 July 1955, it was decided to have the Memorandum reproduced and forwarded to members for discussion at the next meeting. It was indeed discussed in the meeting of 18 August, but the reception was not entirely positive: the committee was not convinced that the plan was economically feasible. It was thanks to chairman Six van Hillegom – described by Brinkgreve 20 years later as an “Amsterdam patrician of the old school, authoritarian, energetic, brusque, and inspired by a burning passion for his city” – that the meeting decided to set up a committee to develop the plans, and in particular to provide them with a firm economic basis.
A public limited company to save the city
The efforts of the De Stad Amsterdam committee to see whether it would be possible to establish a society which, independently of municipal policy, could reverse the decline of Amsterdam’s city centre, bore fruit in 1956. A successful formula was developed that still determines the organisation of Stadsherstel Amsterdam today. It was decided to set up a public limited company rather than an association or foundation because this would make it easier to raise money fast to demonstrate that it was possible to restore the buildings of Amsterdam. After all, it was a matter of urgency: far too much was already being demolished.
A charitable business with a social purpose
But it was no an ordinary public limited company that was founded. The shareholders were to receive only a modest dividend and their share would not grow as the value of the organisation increased. The other earnings would always remain within the company to fund new restoration projects. It was a public limited company that used the capital of its shareholders to buy property and, where sufficient finance and subsidy was available, to restore buildings and make them habitable or usable again.
Six van Hillegom played the largest role in the attracting capital. He was the director of the Amstel brewery, and as a successful businessman he had a wide network. He quickly managed to raise 1,100,000 guilders of capital – it’s said to have taken him just 15 minutes on the phone. And thus Stadsherstel was founded on 30 August 1956.
First purchase: Brouwersgracht 86
Stadsherstel, meaning ‘City Restoration’, set up its office in the attic of the Bureau Monumentenzorg on Dirk van Hasseltsteeg. The organisation had only one member of staff: its director, Karel Wilhelm van Houten.
Unfortunately, Stadsherstel didn’t achieve all that was planned for the first three years. The task was not easy, and the first director had a prudent purchasing policy. Nevertheless, property was bought and restored: the first purchase was Brouwersgracht 86, and by the end of the 1957 financial year, Stadsherstel owned 12 buildings. The first restorations, Zandhoek 13 and Langestraat 80, were also completed. Since then, under directors Jan Hengeveld, Wim Eggenkamp and now Onno Meerstadt, more than 750 historic buildings have been restored and repurposed, and not only in Amsterdam – something our founders had thought of, but didn’t expect to become reality
For decades, Stadsherstel has focused not only on the restoration of historic residential buildings in Amsterdam; the organisation is now also responsible for many types of buildings, from churches to forts, warehouses, schools and industrial heritage, and over the years its area of operation has expanded to 45 kilometres around Amsterdam.