Year-long party as Antwerp city hall turns 450

Summary

Antwerp’s monumental stadhuis is 450 years old this month, and visitors will be given access to all areas for the first time

Monumental celebrations

Antwerp’s stadhuis, or city hall turns 450 this month, and the city is kicking off a year-long celebration this month to mark the occasion. The monumental building on Grote Markt opened its doors on 27 February, 1565, and has been in continuous use ever since. It’s the only town hall on the Unesco World Heritage List that’s still serving its original function.

The festivities start on the evening of 27 February, with a party on Grote Markt, complete with food trucks, concerts and free birthday cake. At 18.30, the popular local city guide and man-about-town Tanguy Ottomer will welcome guests, and the square’s new outdoor lighting will be revealed. At the same time, 300 lucky residents will get a sneak peek inside the town hall during a preview of the new guided tours for the public.

From 1 March, visitors will be able to see the entire building from top to bottom for the first time. Previously, tour groups were only shown the schoon verdiep, home to the main assembly rooms and ceremonial spaces.

The new tour includes the old bomb shelter in the basement and the upper-level service rooms, never before opened to the public. Finally, visitors will be able to walk along the fourth-floor balcony and enjoy the spectacular view over Grote Markt.

While new tours will give curious visitors a peek inside the building, an exhibition on the ground floor will give them a glimpse into its past. According to city official Isabel Michielsen, 450 Years of City Hall: The Most Famous House in the City “tells the story not just of the building but also of the people who work there”. 

Plans abandoned

Through archive materials, historical artefacts and interactive touchscreens, the exhibition explains why a new city hall was needed, who designed it and how it was built. Visitors can learn about the political situation in 16th-century Antwerp, the role of the two mayors and how the building functioned as the seat of local government. The history of the building up to the present day is also covered.

The exhibition tells the story not just of the building but also of the people who work there

- Isabel Michielsen

The final section of the exhibition deals with the planned restoration of the building, scheduled to begin in 2017. An open competition was held last year to select a design team for the restoration, and the winning design is on display.

The guided tours and exhibition are intended to give the public every opportunity to see the historic building before the work begins, as it’s expected that the building will have to be shut for several years.

The city of Antwerp had planned to build a new stadhuis in the first half of the 16th century. A 1540 design by Domien De Waghemakere was approved but never realised when funds and building materials were diverted to the reinforcement of the city’s defences. The city hall might have looked very different, judging from De Waghemakere’s design for Ghent’s city hall, built between 1519 and 1539 in an ornate late-Gothic style.

A second design was commissioned in 1560 from a team of architects led by Cornelis Floris De Vriendt. The new design combined elements of traditional Flemish architecture with Italian Renaissance influences, resulting in a completely new style. The horizontal lines and simple rectangular windows recall the medieval warehouses that were commonly seen in the port city, but the addition of an ornate central tower as well as the use of pink marble, sandstone and limestone give the facade a richness and grandeur.

Survivor

The tower facade is decorated with the coats of arms of Phillip II of Spain, Hapsburg ruler of the Southern Netherlands at the time, and of the Duchy of Brabant and the Margrave of Antwerp. A statue of Brabo, the legendary founder of the city, in the central niche was replaced in 1586 by a statue of the Virgin Mary.

Two other statues depict allegorical figures of Justice and Prudence. The rounded arches on the ground floor once gave access to shops; the rent helped pay for the construction.

The new city hall had only been in use for a few years when it was set ablaze by rioting Spanish troops in 1576. Only the outer walls survived – the roof and interior were completely destroyed. Two hundred years later, French troops again looted and burned the building. In the 19th century, the interior underwent an extensive renovation, which resulted in its current appearance.

Having survived the Spanish Fury, the wars of the Hapsburgs, the French Revolution and more, the venerable stadhuis is now succumbing to the ravages of time, weather and wear. The planned renovation will address climate control issues, repair damage to the historic decor and adapt the interior to modern use. The cost is estimated at about €30 million.

Besides the tours and exhibition, the city is planning other events throughout the anniversary year. A pop-up café, for instance, will open in the schoon verdiep on 28 February. Future events will be announced via the website.

Photo courtesy FelixArchief