The charm of Amsterdam is its canals and the distinctive homes that cast their reflections on the mostly smooth waters. The canals are easy to explore but the homes, or “grachtenpand” as the Dutch call them, are mostly private, so exploring their unique characteristics is limited to gazing at facades.
Even from a canal-side perspective, though, you can learn a bit about the homes and why their design is unique to this part of the world. For instance, you will note that the facades are quite narrow. This, and most of the distinct features of canal houses, is driven by a long history of flooding: an unfortunate characteristic of the low-lying Netherlands that the city has been fighting for more than 1,000 years. A narrow building means less frontage to protect when water overflows the banks. Consequently, over time, homes became narrow and deep to compensate.
Next you will notice that a few steps up to the front door is the norm. That gives an extra measure of protection when the water rises, protecting the first floor and above from damage. This would be especially important for the stately homes where the all-important parlor floor contained valuables and elaborate decorations to impress guests as they arrived.
That’s about as far as casual observation will get you in learning about Amsterdam canal houses. But there is one particularly fine example of a canal house you can visit. It was built in the 17th century and has been carefully restored to its 19th century state. It’s the Museum Van Loon, located in the heart of Amsterdam’s Canal District.
A magnificent residence built in 1672 by the architect Adriaen Dortsman, the Van Loon House was originally the home of painter Ferdinand Bol, a pupil of Rembrandt, who gained prominence and financial success rendering the great and good citizens of Amsterdam on canvas.
The house changed ownership several times until it was purchased in 1884 by the Van Loon family, founders of the Dutch Far East Company. The Van Loons’ descendants still own the house today, and it is their generosity that allows us to climb the steps from the street and enter the 19th century, with their home virtually unchanged from its 1884 renovation.
On your visit, you may tour the kitchen and garden, wander through beautiful reception rooms, climb the stairs up to the private quarters on the first floor, and take tea and cake in what was formally the carriage house to the rear of the home.
The rooms on display are presented in a way to give you the feeling that the owners have just left for a walk: China is on the table, sheets cover the beds, and the family’s fine paintings are on the walls. You get a chance to experience 19th century Dutch life from the inside.
The last person to occupy the whole house was grandson Hendriks Maurits van Loon and his wife, Martine Labouchère. On September 22, 1960, he founded the Van Loon Foundation to restore the house and save the family collection in perpetuity for the public. He died in 2006, and his daughter Philippa succeeded him as president of the foundation.
We took a tour with museum director Tonko Grever who is not only an expert on the Van Loon estate but particularly knowledgeable about canal houses in Amsterdam. This was a great experience, gaining insight into how some of the notable citizens of Amsterdam lived, but also getting an understanding of canal houses in general, and how they are designed to combat some of the unique challenges of water in Holland.
The Museum Van Loon is not widely known, but we think it’s a perfect way to explore the culture of Amsterdam and better understand its people.
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