About Amsterdam and its famous canal houses

Amsterdam canals and canal houses by Raul DS, on Flickr

Amsterdam canals and canal houses by Raul DS, on Flickr

The canals and waterways of Amsterdam embody the soul and history of a city that grew up on them. For many years the canals were vital to the survival of the city. However while the city owes its survival to them, the canals owe much of their undeniable beauty to the presence of the magnificent canal houses that border them. This article tells you about what specifies Amsterdam’s famous canal houses. Stylish offer related to them including even the original lampposts and fixtures, can be found in our article ‘Stylish souvenirs related to Amsterdam’s canal houses‘.

Stocking trade items

Amsterdam’s canals, included by UNESCO in their list of World Heritage Sites, were once the main arteries for much of the traffic in the city, and consequently many canal houses were involved in trade. For this reason, many of them used to have a basement where goods were stored. Attics were also used for this purpose, and would often be equipped with a special load bearing beam and pulley system that overhung the front of the house, for hoisting goods up and down into the roof space. These goods typically included things like cotton, spices, cocoa along with many other kinds of products. Nowadays, there remain quite a few canal houses with working pulleys and they are still used for moving furniture.

Canal houses’ set up

Amsterdam canal houses

Houses by the canal by @ rgs, on Flickr [GFDL (www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)]

These houses are almost always very old, and they are tall, slim and have very deep structures. Another feature of them is that they always have very steep and narrow staircases. One of the reasons they are designed in this way is that Holland is a country where living space has always been at a premium. Therefore the Dutch learned to build tall yet compact buildings in order to maximize the space available to them. Due to the risk of flooding that is prevalent throughout much of the nation, the front door of most canal houses is usually raised and accessible only via stairs, which is usually about 8 or 9 steps above ground level.

At the rear of most canal houses, there is usually a garden that will run either all the way or to about halfway to the next house behind it. The financial strength of the house’s owner and the fashions of the time would dictate how the garden was laid out and designed, but the vast majority of them are splendidly beautiful. Typically, the gardens of canal houses feature a summerhouse at the bottom, which was used as a place to receive visitors and relax.

Twin or triplet houses

Sometimes a canal house owner would have one or more new houses built, using the same building contractors, and the design of them would be mirrored so that they reflected the original building. These same-style canal houses are known as twin or triplet houses. In some places in the city there are even five or six houses with the same mirrored design. These ‘sets’ of canal houses are usually smaller than normal, because the land owner would often sacrifice the building size for quantity, and so three houses might be built on two lots.

Width and size

A canal house’s width and the size of its garden will vary depending on the time it was built. The reason for this is that land lots during the 17th century were smaller, starting at 18 feet, but over time these lots increased in size, rising to 20 feet, then 22 feet, up to an eventual 26 feet.

Amsterdam canal houses

Canal houses Amsterdam; ordered by fazen, on Flickr

Sometimes when you travel along the canals of Amsterdam, and particularly the one where the wealthiest and most important persons lived, the Herengracht canal, it is possible to spot a double wide house. These canal houses resemble mansions and occupy two lots of land instead of one.

These wealthy, double-wide canal house owners would sometimes buy up even more plots of land behind the property and build a warehouse or carriage house there. The warehouses especially were much deeper than regular canal houses because it was not necessary for them to receive so much daylight.

Luxurious accommodations

Over time, as the canals lost their importance as trade and transport routes, these warehouses lost their purpose, and so now many of them have been transformed into accommodations.

Read on about canal houses in our article ’Stylish souvenirs related to Amsterdam’s canal houses‘, including a link to local books about canal houses’ beautiful gardens.

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