The famous Amsterdam Canal Houses together with its canals are part of the United Nations World Heritage. The impressive mansions along the Amsterdam canals were built during Amsterdam Golden Age. The 17th century canal ring was created in the 17th century. The ‘new rich’ merchant families built their canal houses to mirror their financial and societal success in the city. The stories of the Amsterdam Canal Houses are seen and told in the 4 Canal House Museums in Amsterdam.
From 1580 to the end of the 17th century, Amsterdam grew from a small town of 30.000 people into a large international city of 160.000 inhabitants. Thanks to the financial success of Amsterdam, a new class of wealthy merchants arose. The merchants made a fortune buying and selling grains and wood, investing in the VOC, who imported exotic spices from far East and trading slaves with the Americas. Amsterdam had become a major trade portal in the world.
The Amsterdam canal houses
During this ‘Golden Age’ it was these rich merchant families, the elite of Protestant families, who held the power in the city. To house the rich merchant families and the many immigrants who came to find their fortune in booming Amsterdam, the city needed to expand. Between 1613 and 1665, 3 main canals were dug: Herengracht, Keizersgracht and Prinsengracht. Families who had enough money to afford a plot of land along one of the canal rings built their own canal house.
Herengracht was the most expensive canal to acquire a plot of land. Up to this day, the Herengracht is the canal where the most affluent families live and companies are housed. Most of the Amsterdam canal houses that are open to visitors do not have many original decorations. Most of the items, painted wall and ceiling panels, chandeliers, paintings and furniture in these Amsterdam canal house museums have actually come from other canal houses or museums and have been placed in the museum.
There are 5 canal house museums in Amsterdam you can visit.
1. Cromhout Canal Houses (Biblical Museum)
The Amsterdam Biblical Museum is housed in the top floor of two of 4 very famous Amsterdam canal houses: the Cromhout Canal Houses. The 4 Cromhout Houses are located in a row on Herengracht (364 to 370 (see photo above).
The houses are named after Jacob Cromhout, a wealthy and powerful Amsterdam merchant who had bought the 4 plots next to each other and built 4 identical houses (around 1660). This wasn’t uncommon. Usually, the owner would live in one or two of these houses and make an income by renting out the other houses. The Cromhout family live in the houses on Herengracht for almost 2 centuries.
The Cromhout houses are built in the style of Dutch Classicism. Philip Vingboons is the architect. Vingboons is famous for creating the ‘neck gable’, which you can see on the Cromhout houses façades. This type of gable became rather fashionable and was later copied on many other Amsterdam canal houses.
Dutch Classicism, a strict and formal style in art and architecture, became popular after 1625, thereby replacing the somewhat ‘loose’ Dutch Renaissance. The small group of rich merchants who ruled Amsterdam and the world, were very class-conscious and rather posh. They felt this new formal style suited their elitist lifestyle on the grand Amsterdam canals. In Dutch classicism, less ornaments were used, there was a preference for natural sandstone, pillars were common. Another famous example of Amsterdam Dutch classicism is the Town Hall, now Royal Palace on Dam Square, built by Jacob van Campen.
2. Museum Willet-Holthuysen
The Amsterdam canal house of Museum Willet-Holthuysen is another double house, located on Herengracht 602. Originally, the house was built in 1687, but in 1740 it was thoroughly renovated. A new gable was added on the front facade, and a hallway and the staircase were constructed. In 1855, the house was renovated once more, this time by merchant daughter Louisa Holthuysen who inherited the house and married an art collector named Abraham Willet. Luckily, Louisa left the entire property to the city of Amsterdam when she died, so the entire canal house can be visited.
French Louis XIV style
What’s great about this Amsterdam canal house is that it’s the only one that is fully furnished. The interior design of this Amsterdam canal house can be quiet overwhelming. Especially the renovation that took place in 1740 left a mark.
The sober and formal style of Dutch classicism had been thrown out the window and in came the French Louis XIV style with exuberant plaster moulding on the ceilings, wooden panelling and heavy marbling on the floors.
The house is the proud owner of one of the most outrageous staircases of Amsterdam. Center pieces are three marble sculptures, depicting the verdict of Paris, lit up dramatically by the sun rays piercing through the dome above.
The ballroom dates back to the time of the family Willet-Holthuysen. Don’t forget to look up to admire the wonderful decorated ceiling. The tapestry and carpentry throughout the house is really amazing and were probably ordered in from Paris, like other features in the room.
In the 20th century, the museum decided to renovate the canal house, to bring it back to its ‘original state’ in the 17th and 18th century.
18th century kitchen
Among the many changes, some big and some small, an 18th century kitchen was built in the basement. In 1973, a large 18th century styled garden was added. Ironically, the museum has renewed its interest in the Willet-period and has uncovered some decorative features from that period. It’s even considering bringing some rooms back to the state of 1865.
Museum Willet-Holthuysen is open every day and costs €8 for adults.
3. Canal House Museum
The Amsterdam Canal House Museum is located on Herengracht 368. The museum is rather new, but located in an original canal house. Though the canal 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.
The rich paintings and plasterwork on the ground floor date back to the 18th century. Nice is also the painted wall paper from 1776, signed by its maker, portraying Dutch landscape. The list of owners of the house includes many powerful people. One of them was banker Jan Willink. Willink famously helped the Americans finance the their war of independence by loaning millions to John Adams, who later became the president of the United States.
The exhibition of Museum Canal House is entirely dedicated to the history of the Amsterdam canal houses in a broader sense. In 7 different rooms and with the help of digital, multimedia presentations, you’ll learn everything about the Amsterdam canal ring.
The Canal House Museum (Het Grachtenhuis) is located on Herengracht 386. The museum is closed on Monday.
Entrance is €8 if you buy a ticket online and €12 if you buy a ticket at the counter.
4. Museum Van Loon
The Amsterdam canal house Museum Van Loon is owned by the family Van Loon, an aristocratic family who bought the house in 1884. The Van Loon family played many important administrative roles in Amsterdam. One of the ancestors co-founded the VOC (Dutch East Indies Company).
The family Van Loon actually still resides in the palace on the Keizersgracht, but is kind enough to open parts of the canal house to visitors. Originally, the house was built by Adriaen Dortsman in 1672. The house is built on two plots.
Coach house at Museum Van Loon
The best feature of Museum Van Loon is the coach house. Like the canal house Geelvinck, a coachhouse was built in the garden. However, at Keizersgracht, the inner gardens are not as large as the Herengracht and the coachhouse doesn’t go al the way to the Prinsengracht, but ends to a parallel street, backstreet, the 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.
Traffic jams in the 17th century
Traffic jams were a common sight in the city centre and the noise of the wooden wheels hitting the cobbled streets was unbearable. The city council hoped to people would use the sledding carriages instead, which made less noise and imposed heavy duties on people who dared to take the carriage with wheels out for a spin.
Whatever coach you had, it was necessary to have your own private coach house to park your carriage and feed the horses. Nowadays, all the Amsterdam coach houses have been transformed into offices and living quarters. You can still recognize an old coach house by its double doors.
Museum Van Loon’s coach house is the only coach house in Amsterdam that has been restored to its original state. The coach house at Van Loon’s even has original coaches and sometimes even horses on show.
Museum canal house Van Loon on Keizersgracht 672 is closed on Tuesday.
Entrance is €8 for adults.
5. Museum Geelvinck-Hinlopen
The well kept interior of Museum Geelvinck-Hinlopen on Herengracht 633 shows the extraordinary wealth and taste of its owners of this Amsterdam canal house: Albert Geelvinck and his wife, Sara Hinlopen. The Geelvinck family made their fortune working for and trading in the VOC, importing spices from the East Indies. They also invested in the WIC, the Dutch company responsible for the Amsterdam slave trade between Africa and the Americas. In 1687, the newly married couple bought the canal house on Herengracht and started decorating it lushfully.
The house was built on two plots. It was normal to use one part of the house to entertain guests (only on invitation!) and do business, while the other side of the house would be used for private retreat. The kitchen and staff quarters would be in the basement, easily accessed by a second front door.
Garden of Geelvinck-Hinlopen canal house
In the back of the house lies the secret gem of the Geelvink-Hinlopen canal house: an enormous garden. The garden runs all the way to the coach house, located on the next canal: Keizersgracht. Just as you’d imagine, the Geelvinck-Hinlopen canal house comes with a fancy library, a drawing room, a dining room and a ‘Chinese room’, where the lady of the house would receive her lady friends for tea and discuss the latest town gossip.
Only the wooden floor panels are still original 17th century. The rest of the decoration is from the 18th and 19th century.
The Museum Geelvinck-Hinlopen is closed due to relocation.