The Façade Stones of Amsterdam
Sint Luciënsteeg, Amsterdam
The streets of Amsterdam are full of design details that are often overlooked by tourists heading for the monuments and sights. The carved façade stones that decorate the canalside houses are among the most interesting and revealing.
The older gevelstenen date from a period when houses and shops were identified by signs rather than street numbers. The stones attached to the house were carved with a name and a brightly-coloured image. They often illustrated the owner’s profession, name or faith. But some were simply whimsical names like De Groote Kies (The Big Tooth), or De Drie Swarte Molle (The Three Black Moles).
The Big Tooth and The Three Black Moles © Amsterdam Museum
The tradition ended during the French occupation of the Netherlands when Napoleon introduced street numbers. Many of the façade stones eventually disappeared when houses were demolished. But a number were saved, and embedded in a wall of the city orphanage (now the Amsterdam Historical Museum) on Sint Luciënsteeg. A further 60 façade stones are displayed, but rarely noticed, on the walls of the Rijksmuseum.
The old art has not totally died out. Beginning in the 1970s, local sculptors have created new gevelstenen to decorate the city’s façades. Like the original works, they reflect the owner’s profession, or the building’s history, or some quirky idea. At Prinsengracht 9, an exasperated owner confronted with endless renovation problems commissioned a stone with the words Nooit Weer (Never Again) and a portrait of the unhappy owner tearing out his hair.
Façade stone 'Never Again' at Prinsengracht 9. © Wikipedia
In 1991, two locals decided to set up an Association of Friends of Amsterdam Façade Stones. Its mission is to protect and raise awareness of this neglected heritage by publishing books, organising walking tours and encouraging owners to restore their façade stones.
More than 750 façade stones have survived in Amsterdam. They offer a fascinating way to explore and understand the Dutch city.