From embassy to gas station: nine examples of the mark America has left on Dutch heritage

Today, voters in the US elect a new president, as they do every four years. The United States of America was first founded on 4 June 1776, when thirteen British colonies on the east coast declared their independence. At the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Great Britain recognized their independence. After the states reached a mutual agreement on a constitution and federal government, George Washington became the first American president.

At the time, the Dutch Republic was among the first countries to recognize the new State. On 16 November 1776, the famous First Salute was fired from Fort Oranje on the Caribbean island of St. Eustatius. The island’s Dutch governor Johannes de Graaff ordered his cannoneers to fire a salute to the warship Andrew Doria, which was sailing under the new flag of the United States. The Americans saw this salute as the first international recognition of their newfound independence. Since then, relations between the Netherlands and the United States have been intensive. Merchants saw golden opportunities for trade and droves of Dutch citizens crossed the Atlantic in search of a better life. Since the decisive role played by US forces in the liberation of Western Europe in World War II, this bond has grown even stronger.

Countless traces of this shared past can be seen throughout the Netherlands. From the heritage of transatlantic shipping to the influence of American architecture on the Dutch urban landscape. In this weblog, advisors from the Cultural Heritage Agency shine a light on some striking examples, though they were spoiled for choice.

Keizersgracht 529, Amsterdam
Image: ©RCE
Keizersgracht 529, Amsterdam

1. Keizersgracht 529, Amsterdam

The building at Keizersgracht 529 has one of the many 18th-century façades that define the unique cityscape of Amsterdam’s central canal district. Although its architecture is not all that exceptional, it owes its status to the distinguished figures who lived within its walls. In 1781-1782, this canalside residence was home to two future presidents of the newly founded United States of America: John Adams and his teenage son Quincy Adams, who served as US president from 1797 to 1801 and from 1825 to 1829, respectively.

In 1780, John Adams was dispatched to the Netherlands by the American government to raise funds for the fledgling country, still fighting for its independence from the British. Initially, his fundraising efforts did not meet with much success. While the merchants of Amsterdam were sympathetic to the American cause, they were reluctant to support it openly. The country’s leader, stadtholder William V, was a staunch ally of the British. However, on 19 April 1782, John Adams was recognized as an official envoy by the States-General. Shortly afterwards, he found a group of Amsterdam merchants who were willing to grant a substantial loan to his homeland. It was the first ever foreign loan made to the United States. After the conclusion of a treaty of friendship and trade, signed on 8 October 1782, Adams took up residence in a building at Fluwelen Burgwal 17 in The Hague, which has since disappeared.

His former residence on Amsterdam’s Keizersgracht has been dubbed the oldest US embassy in the world. However, that status is questionable. After all, Benjamin Franklin was ambassador in Paris from 1776. It is probably the oldest diplomatic mission still standing today. And regardless of what came first, the building remains an extraordinary witness to the ties between the Republic of the Netherlands and the United States of America. A plaque on the façade reminds us of this fact.

2. Zonnebeek House, Enschede

In 1900, the young American Edwina Burr Ewing (1872-1945) married textile manufacturer Jan Bernhard van Heek (1863-1923) of Enschede. Edwina, 27 at the time, was a native of St. Louis, Missouri and had met Jan Bernhard in the German spa town of Bad Bentheim. The newlyweds settled in Enschede and between 1906 and 1908 had a beautiful country house built, which they called Zonnebeek. A sporty and culture-loving couple, they transformed what was still an expanse of heathland outside Enschede into a beautiful estate complete with mansion, kitchen garden, summer house, coach house and garage.

The main house was designed by the Twente architect Arend Gerrit Beltman Gzn. in an American style. The white house has a symmetrical facade with a protruding, semi-circular portico as a striking centrepiece, complete with balcony and tympanum. It is reminiscent of the ‘colonial-style’ houses in the southern states of America, which Edwina knew so well from her youth. The interior is light and airy, creating a pleasant and welcoming atmosphere. The surrounding park was also designed with America in mind, offering wide open spaces and extensive lawns. The grounds were the work of landscape architect Pieter Wattez.

3. Arrival and departure hall of the Holland America Line, Rotterdam

As a major port city, Rotterdam has always played an important role in the ties between the Netherlands and America. Listed buildings on the south bank of the River Maas bear testimony to this shared history. In 1873, the Dutch-American Steamship Company (NASM) set up business on Prinsessekade. The company built a large quayside terminal for cargo shipping and people emigrating to the New World. The terminal consisted of several large warehouses (with a total length of 700 metres), an office building, an arrival and departure hall and a workshop. In 1896, the company added the words Holland-America Line (HAL) to its name, and five years later commissioned a striking office building at the head of the Wilhelmina Pier, which is now home to Hotel New York.

The German bombardment of Rotterdam on 14 May 1940 destroyed many of the HAL buildings. Immediately after the war, new warehouses were built, named after five port cities (Philadelphia, Norfolk, Baltimore, New York and Rotterdam). One of them, the Rotterdam, survives to this day. This warehouse, which served as a departure and arrival hall, was built in 1949 in the New Objectivity style by architects J.A. Brinkman, J.H. van den Broek and J.B. Bakema. After being converted into an events hall, the arrivals hall underwent extensive renovations and resumed duty as cruise terminal in 1999.

4. Dudok gas station, Groningen

Willem Marinus Dudok, the architect who designed this gas station, enjoyed enormous popularity in the United States. In 1953 he was awarded the gold medal of the American Institute of Architects. Dudok ran into the director of US oil company Esso, who commissioned him to come up with an inexpensive but responsible design for a gas station. He opted for a V-shaped design on two legs, and a box with steel windows beneath. A combination of canopy, refuelling point and kiosk. The first of these designs appeared in Heerlen and over one hundred facsimiles followed along highways the length and breadth of the Netherlands. It was a standard model, but not prefabricated. All of the elements were manufactured on location, with minor adjustments to accommodate the site, such as the size of the canopy or the kiosk. The one remaining station stands proudly in the centre of Groningen, a testament to America’s influence on Dutch roadside architecture.

5. Eerder Esch Manor House, Ommen

Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the best known and most emulated American architects of the 20th century. No fewer than eight of his designs were given UNESCO World Heritage status in 2019. His style is being replicated to this day. Known as Prairie Style, it was inspired by the vast plains of North America and was intended to produce a truly American architecture, a break with the traditional European styles that had been dominant up to that point. The result was distinctive structures with elongated horizontal lines, large overhangs, gentle slopes, use of brick and concrete, and floor plans that offered a seamless transition from interior to exterior.

Eerder Esch manor house in Ommen is a remarkable example of a Dutch building that was inspired by the houses of Frank Lloyd Wright. On honeymoon in the United States, Philip Baron of Pallandt was so impressed by Wright’s architecture that on returning to the Netherlands in 1929, he commissioned architect Hendrik Sangster to design a manor house along similar lines for his family. This new house, in harmony with the surrounding landscape, arose among the ash trees on the castle grounds of the Eerde Estate, which the baron had inherited.

6. Polder Tjalma Windmill, Skarmole, Súdwest-Fryslân

The American windmill or farm wind pump originated in the United States and was developed around 1854 by Daniel Halladay. This type of windmill was commonly used in the Netherlands in the first half of the 20th century to drain polders. They were seen as a cheaper alternative to a traditional windmill or a steam-driven pumping station. The main advantages over the traditional Dutch windmill were that it could operate without the supervision of a miller and required less maintenance. Two major benefits for the authorities charged with the never-ending task of keeping the low-lying polders dry. In the first half of the 20th century over two hundred were placed, mostly in the provinces of Noord-Holland and Friesland (or Fryslân in the language of the province).

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Windmotor Polder Tjalma, Skarmole, Súdwest-Fryslân
Image: ©RCE
Polder Tjalma Windmill, Skarmole, Súdwest-Fryslân

The larger models of these American-style windmills were manufactured in the German city of Dresden, among other places. This is also true of Polder Tjalma Windmill, Skarmole in Súdwest-Fryslân. The mill was imported by R.S. Stokvis & Sons of Rotterdam and was ready for operation in 1926. The stone structure was added in the 1960s, when the mill was fitted with a diesel engine. In 1999, the structure was placed in the care of the Nijefurd Windmill Society, who restored it to its former glory.

7. Former American Embassy, The Hague

This striking edifice was built in the late 1950s to house the US embassy and is located on the corner of Lange Voorhout and Korte Voorhout in The Hague. The design of an embassy building at this delicate location in the city centre was entrusted to architect Marcel Breuer, who was Hungarian by birth. The choice of Breuer was very much in line with the US government’s architectural policy at the time, which was geared towards selecting internationally oriented architects with a modernist background for their embassies.

Breuer designed an embassy complex that was attuned to its surroundings in terms of its volume, but that stood out in terms of its architectural style. The building consists of two perpendicular rectangular wings of four floors that enclose an inner garden with an auditorium. The façades are covered with rectangular and trapezoidal slabs of Muschel limestone, while the characteristic trapezoidal shape is echoed by the design of the windows. The exterior as a whole is relatively closed and subdued, but the use of materials, the formal language and the meticulous attention to detail testify to a high architectural standard and lend the structure its monumental character.

Since the US embassy moved out in 2018, the authorities have been looking to repurpose this extraordinary example of post-war reconstruction architecture in a variant of the International Style.

8. Singer Museum, Laren

William Singer, son of a wealthy Pittsburgh steel magnate, was fascinated by art. It was a fascination that took him and his wife Anna Singer-Brugh to Paris, the international centre of the art world at the time. Their admiration for the work of the Dutch painter Anton Mauve brought them to the artists’ village of Laren in the Netherlands. For years, Mauve had worked in the Gooi region and his paintings of the local heath landscapes and flocks of sheep were very popular with American collectors. In Laren, the Singers had a villa built and called it ‘The Wild Swans’. It was a home from home where they entertained their friends, many of whom were artists. As a couple, they assembled an impressive art collection.

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Portret van Anna en William Singer
Image: ©Singer Laren
Anna and William Singer

After the death of her husband, Anna Singer had a museum and a concert hall built next to their villa. It was opened to the public in 1956. In the visual arts, theatre and music, William and Anna Singer’s cultural legacy lives on in Laren to this day. The art collection has grown and many leading musicians have performed at the Singer, not least the jazz legends Dizzy Gillespie and Chet Baker. In 2020, the Singers’ museum, villa, theatre and sculpture garden continue to flourish and inspire.

9. RAI, Amsterdam

As a major exhibition and conference centre, the RAI in Amsterdam has welcomed many prominent visitors in its time. Without doubt, one of the most celebrated is American religious leader and civil rights activist Martin Luther King. Dr King came to Amsterdam in the summer of 1964 for the European Baptist Conference that was held in the RAI from 12 to 16 August. He preached at the service on the final Sunday of the conference, a sermon that was broadcast live on television in the Netherlands, Germany, Denmark and Sweden.

For his non-violent campaign against racism and for equal rights, Dr King went on to win the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize. The following year he returned to the Netherlands to receive an honorary doctorate from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in a ceremony at the Concertgebouw. Three years later, on 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee.

The exhibition and trade fair building Europahal RAI and its adjacent advertising column Het Signaal was designated a national monument in 2015 as a prime example of the period of post-war reconstruction in the Netherlands.