Originally posted Spring 2007. Photos: John Sommo
Most people think of cookie cutter, inexpensive bordering on cheap, brick architecture when you mention a row house. But travel across the Atlantic Ocean and you will see that row homes have a rich and beautiful history. Amsterdam stands out not only because it has a unique style of row home but also because no where else is there such a great wealth of period homes, the oldest dating back to the 15th century.
Amsterdam is a medieval city, first settled in the end of the 1100’s. During the next few centuries, development flourished. To have the maximum number of residents have access to the canals, the plots of land are narrow and long, dictating the design of the buildings. Over the centuries, architects have been careful to maintain a uniform style, a “citizens’ architecture” (see http://www.bma.amsterdam.nl) that draws from classical influences. Amsterdam is extremely proud of it’s architectural heritage and in the later half of the 20th century many private and public organizations have been solely devoted to restoration.
Row houses in Amsterdam are either single width, between 25 and 30 feet wide, or double width and twice that. All homes have prominent rows of windows, although the number of windows differs, and most have steps and a stoop. The main aesthetic and structural difference between the two homes is the type of roof they have. Narrow homes have a steep gabled roof while the wider homes have a wider low pitched roof. The unique facades of the Amsterdam homes are a result of architects trying to creatively hide the supporting roof structure. Although Dutch urban architecture is unique and has influenced city designers across the western world, in and of itself, it is very uniform and organized.
The first row homes were built during the 15th century. These were single story, wooden structures with a triangular gable and probably single structures built with no space between but not actually sharing a load bearing wall. The problem with this was that fires often eradicated entire blocks. In response, the city outlawed the use of wood on the exterior of the homes. Only one all wooden house remains, located at Begijnhof 34.
Over the next few centuries the row house would evolve into what people today most associate with Dutch architecture; the multi-story, stone facade building with a stepped front gable.
The evolution begins in the 16th century when people began to decorate their gables with scroll masonry accents. During the 17th century the gable became stepped with equal size steps. The stepped gable would reappear in the Dutch Renaissance Revival style, examples of which can be seen in New York and Philadelphia. During the Baroque and Classical periods, the gable would reach it’s pinnacle of ornamentation, including balustrades, columns and statuary. To accommodate the designs, the facades of the homes often extended beyond the actual roof. However, regardless of the diversity of design, the main structure of the houses remained constant. Almost all the houses on a block in Amsterdam will be the same height, narrow homes have three sets of windows across and the doubles have five.
Inside the homes follow a formula as well. The most common lay out comes from a design popular in the 18th century. There are two halves separated by a courtyard. The front of the home, or Voorhuis, would have the store, if it was a merchant’s dwelling, with storage on the upper floors. A long passage way would connect the three parts of the home. The sanitary facilities would be located in the courtyard. In the back section of the home, or the Achterhuis, there would be a large parlor on the main floor, for entertaining, that would overlook a garden and stairs leading to the upper, private floors. According to The Amsterdam Heritage web site (see http://www.bma.amsterdam.nl), many houses in Amsterdam still have original decoration including ceiling paintings, masonry carvings, decorated entry ways and fireplaces.
Despite a bleak period of urban over development in the mid 20th century, Amsterdam still has more historic residences than many other European cities and a most unique physical time line of urban architecture development, specifically the row house.
More about the row houses of Amsterdam as well as other historic structures is available on The Amsterdam Heritage web site (see http://www.bma.amsterdam.nl).