The lost city: “We would never have torn down the colonial establishment”

In the program The lost city we go to a different place in Amsterdam every time to see how it has changed over time. This time we are at Westerdoksdijk. The colonial establishment once stood here until it had to make way for the new Palace of Justice.

Just before the demolition, the Colonial Etablissement was already surrounded by new construction – Amsterdam City Archives

Westerdoksdijk today bears no resemblance to what it was almost fifteen years ago. The site where the Colonial Establishment stood until 2009 is now a marina, and where the marina used to be, now stands the towering Justice Palace. Land and water have been artificially turned. Colonial Etablissement came here in 1913. It was intended for transhipment and storage of goods from India such as coffee, tea and spices. When we look over our shoulder, we can still see the tip of Central Station. According to architectural historian Wouter van Elburg, this was one of the reasons for choosing this location: “It was a building that had an important commercial function. The transport of goods there, both by sea and by land, became increasingly important. of trains and the large shunting yard that used to be here will certainly have contributed to that. “


Until the beginning of the nineteenth century, there was an open connection from IJ here, with the further problem that it polluted itself as a result. Sand was pushed towards the quays and the water was therefore no longer deep enough for the boats to moor. They tried to solve this problem by building dikes along the IJ with inland ports behind. Then Oosterdok and Westerdok were built. Behind Westerdok lay a large deep inner harbor where the boats were moored. A piece of land was built on the Westerdok, Westerdoksdijk. All kinds of sheds were built here and later also the Colonial Etablissement.

“The Colonial Establishment was the showpiece of the industry”

Wouter van elburg, architectural historian

Colonial Establishment

According to Wouter van Elburg, the fact that many Amsterdam residents do not know about the Colonial Etablissement is due to the fact that the building no longer had that function for a long time. The water police had been stationed here since the 1950s.

“But the building,” Van Elburg continues his argument, “is very characteristic of the time in which it was built. It is an early twentieth-century building in an eclectic style with Berlagian influences. In other words: with a rich use of bricks and stones.A bit with reference to the neo-renaissance, to the styles of the late nineteenth century, and perhaps also a small reference to Holland’s famous past in the seventeenth century.a place where a lot of money was made by transhipment of the goods. We see this reflected in the design. It is very richly decorated with many special details. It made it an attractive building to look at. ”


Attractive or not, in 2009 the Colonial Establishment was demolished to make way for the new Palace of Justice. We would say a mortal sin now, but back then we thought very differently.

“One will always be nuanced about demolition, because one can not always keep everything,” historian Hanneke Ronnes begins her argument cautiously, “but in this case it is really a great shame. The colonial past is an important part of our history. It “We do not have many material memories. Maybe objects, but less architecture.”

In addition, old buildings prevent the environment from becoming monotonous. Today, the architecture around Westerdoksdijk is dominated by modern blocks of blocks.

“Besides being a really beautiful building, you also miss the cultural history. I think that now in 2022 we would never have torn it down again, especially because of the colonial past.”

Swimming in IJ

When we stand at Westerdijksdok, we can no longer imagine that Amsterdam’s first swimming school was here from the middle of the nineteenth century. Especially now that the weather is bad: with a cold wind and rain. The school came to teach more to swim. Now most people have a swimming diploma, but that was certainly not the case back then. People preferred to avoid water, they even preferred not to bathe. It sometimes happened that someone fell into one of the many canals and drowned. Something had to be done about that.

“The IJ water was still very clean at the time,” says Van Elburg, “because it had an open connection with the Zuiderzee.”

Initially, only the elite benefited from the new swimming and bathing facilities.

Swimming lessons in IJ – Jacob Olie, Amsterdam City Archives

The swimming and bathing facilities remained there until the beginning of the twentieth century. Due to the industry and the nearby ranger farm, the water quality had dropped so much that it became unhealthy to swim here. From that moment we took a swim indoors, e.g. in Heiligewegbad.

See here for more episodes of The Lost City

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