The famous Amsterdam canals and its canal houses are part of the United Nations World Heritage. The impressive mansions along the Amsterdam canals were built during the Golden Age of Amsterdam. The lavish interior of the Amsterdam canal houses and their architecture reflect the financial and societal success of the merchant families in 17th century Amsterdam.
History of the Amsterdam Canal Houses
From 1580 to the end of the 17th century, Amsterdam grew from a small portal town of 30.000 people into a large international city of 160.000 inhabitants. Merchants made their fortunes trading grain and wood. Large investments went to the Dutch VOC, the East India Company. This mega corporation sent sent ships to the far East to trade exotic spices. The Dutch West India Company (WIC) traded African slaves with the Americas. Amsterdam had quickly become the most important city in the world.
People from all over Europe flocked to Amsterdam to seek their luck and fortune. The tolerant climate in the city also attracted refugees from France (Hugenots) and Portugal and Spain and Antwerp (Jews).
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Digging the Amsterdam Canal Belt
To house the merchant families and the many immigrants, Amsterdam needed to expand. Between 1613 and 1662, three canals were dug: Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht. The Amsterdam Canal Belt was placed in a half moon-shape around the Singel canal, enclosing the medieval city center.
The creation of the Amsterdam Canals was an huge project. Plots of land had to be expropriated, and funding raised. Various areas were appointed with a function: the Western Islands were meant for shipyards and shipping companies.
Affluent merchants, bankers, administrators and other wealthy people could buy a plot of land along the canal to build their own ‘city palace’ Smelly factories or loud workshops were not allowed in the canal belt. The Jordaan was created for the workers and their workshops and small businesses.
Amsterdam canal house facade
Typical of the Amsterdam Canal Houses are their facades. It was considered ugly if you could see the roof from the street. The roof was therefore hidden from view by a gable. In the first years this was the ‘stepped gable’. Later more gable styles became in fashion: the neck gable, the bell gable and later the sober horizontal gable.
Canal Houses in Amsterdam are narrow but deep. That is because the land along the canals was divided into plots each of about the same size. Some bought two plots of land to build a luxury double-fronted mansion.
Merchant houses and mansions
The architecture of Amsterdam canal houses from the 17th century can be distinguished between merchant houses (‘koopmanshuizen’) and a townhouse or mansion (‘herenhuis’). Merchant houses were not just used as a residence, but also to store goods. Goods such as spices, coffee and tulip bulbs were transported into the city by barges and hoisted on to the attic. On many merchant houses there is still a hoist beam visible next to a small window with shutters.
Amsterdam Canal House Architecture
There are a few architects who created many of the Amsterdam canal houses. The first is Hendrick de Keyser who created an architectural style in the early decades of the 17th century we call ‘Amsterdam Renaissance’. It’s a rather ‘busy’ style in typical Dutch red bricks with lots of ornaments and horizontal lines.
Hendrick de Keyser built three famous churches: Zuiderkerk, Westerkerk and Noorderkerk. He also created two mansions on the Amsterdam canals: the House with the Heads (to visited at the Embassy of the free mind) on Keizersgracht 123 (1622) and Bartolotti House on Herengracht 170-172 (1617).
From 1625, Dutch Baroque (Hollands classicisme) became the preferred architecture for many Amsterdam canal houses. This was a more sober and chique style. Architect Jacob van Campen set the fashion with the Amsterdam City Hall on Dam Square in sandstone. This building is now the Amsterdam Royal Palace)
Architect Philips Vingboons was favored to create many of the double-fronted canal houses. He designed a new type of gable: the neck gable. Mid 17th century Vingboons was the most important architect in Amsterdam. His most famous work is the Cromhouthuis at Herengracht. But because Vingboons was Catholic and the power in the city belonged to the protestant elite, he was never asked to create a government building.
READ MORE: Why are Amsterdam houses crooked?
In the back of the Amsterdam canal houses there are spacious private gardens with garden houses. These gardens cannot be accessed or viewed from the street. Once a year, during the Amsterdam Garden Days, these gardens are open to the public.
In the streets between the canals there were shops. The lower part of these shops was made of wood and the entrance was not with a stairs but on street level. Upstairs there were living quarters. Shops on the canals were not allowed, except on corners. The connecting streets of the Amsterdam canal belt is now a popular shopping area with small boutiques known as ‘9 streets‘.
In some cases there is a parallel street between two canals. It was possible to buy also the house along this street, in the back of the canal mansion. This was a perfect location for a carriage or coach house and stables. You can still see the old gates of these coach houses in Langestraat and Kerkstraat.
Couch houses or carriage houses were very common in the Golden Age, particularly behind canal houses. Rich Amsterdam merchants preferred to be transported along the canals by carriage. As more people could afford a carriage, problems started to arise. With the streets being so narrow, parking was as much of a hassle as it is today.
The Golden Bend
From 1662 the Herengracht was dug further to the East. The new bend in the canal quickly became the most posh canal where impressive ‘city palaces’ were built. The houses along the golden bend in Herengracht are typically much wider than the canal houses that were built fifty years earlier. ‘The Golden Bend’ in the Herengracht is the most famous part of the Amsterdam Canals and symbolizes the wealth and glory of the Amsterdam Golden Century.
The interior of Amsterdam Canal Houses
There are hardly any Amsterdam canal houses that have an interior from the 17th century. Most houses were renovated in the 18th century, to make them bigger or adjust them to the fashion of the time.
If you want to see what a house looked like in the 17th century, I strongly recommend visiting the Rembrandt Museum and the Museum Our lord in the attic. Though not in the canal belt, both museums have completely renovated the houses in 17th century style. They are great examples of furnished houses that really show people lived in the 17th century.
There are more options to see the interior of an 18th century canal house. The Museum Willet-Holthuysen is a beautiful double-fronted town house on Herengracht that is absolutely worth a visit. The interior of the canal house is original from the 18th and 19th century.
Museum Van Loon
On Keizersgracht 672, the 19th century interior of the Amsterdam regent family Van Loon can be visited. The canal house was built in 1602 by architect Adriaen Dortsman in the sober Dutch Baroque style.
In 1884 Hendrik van Loon bought the house for his son Willem Hendrik as a wedding present. Willem Hendrik and his wife Thora lived there with their two children and staff. The family’s rich history can be gleaned from the large collection of portraits in the museum. Most remarkable is the restored coach house in the garden which can be visited at the Museum Van Loon.
Amsterdam Canal House Museum
The Amsterdam Canal House Museum (Het grachtenhuis) is located in an original canal house on Herengracht 368. Though the house was originally built in 1665, the mansion has seen so many chances throughout time, that hardly any original features are left from those first years. Each of the inhabitants felt it necessary to adjust the interior to fit in with the fashion of the era.
Most of the museum is dedicated to the history of the Amsterdam canals. In 7 different rooms and with the help of digital, multimedia presentations, you’ll learn everything about the Amsterdam canal ring.
More museums in Amsterdam Canal Houses
The Museum of Bags and Purses (Tassenmuseum Hendrikje) and Huis Marseille (a museum of photography) are also located in the Amsterdam canal belt. The interior of these canal houses such as painted ceilings are often still in tact and the architecture can give you a good idea of a 17th century Amsterdam canal house.