Essential Architecture-  Amsterdam

Royal Palace former Town Hall


Jacob van Campen


situated in the west side of Dam Square in the centre of Amsterdam, opposite the War Memorial and next to the Nieuwe Kerk. Amsterdam, Holland








The Royal Palace in Amsterdam (Koninklijk Paleis te Amsterdam in Dutch) is one of three palaces in the Netherlands which is at the disposal of Queen Beatrix by Act of Parliament. It is situated in the west side of Dam Square in the centre of Amsterdam, opposite the War Memorial and next to the Nieuwe Kerk.

It was built by Jacob van Campen, who took control of the construction project in 1648, as the Town Hall for the City of Amsterdam, and was built on 13,659 wooden piles. It was opened on 20th July 1655 by the leaders of the city. The interiors, focusing on the power and prestige of Amsterdam, were completed later (mainly by Rembrandt and Ferdinand Bol).

After the patriot revolution which swept the House of Orange from power a decade earlier, the new Batavian Republic was forced to accept Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, as King of Holland in 1806. After holding his court at The Hague and Utrecht, Louis Napoleon moved to Amsterdam, and converted the Town Hall into a royal palace for himself.

The King of Holland did not have long to appreciate his new palace. He abdicated on the 2 July 1810, and the Netherlands was annexed by France. The palace then became home to the French governor, Charles François Lebrun.

Prince William VI (son of Prince William V of Orange), returned to the Netherlands in 1813, after Napoleon fell from power, and restored the palace to its original owners. After his investiture as King William I of the Netherlands, however, Amsterdam was made the official capital of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands (the seats of government being Brussels and The Hague). The new King realised the importance of having a palace in the capital, and the Town Hall again became a royal palace.

It was made property of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1936, and is used by the Queen for entertaining and hosting official functions, such as state visits, the New Year reception, and the presentations of the Erasmus, Royal Grant to Painting and Prince Claus prizes.

At the time it was the largest secular building on Earth and was labelled the "Eighth Wonder of the World". Today, the palace is one Amsterdam's few freestanding buildings standing detached at the west end of the Dam. Its 114-window facade, once radiant, have faded over the years. However, its interiors remain breathtaking and are the main reason why hundreds of thousands continue to visit every year.

For such a grand undertaking, it was only natural that the Dutch masters be the chosen decorators. Creative duties were delegated to Rembrandt's students Ferdinand Bol and Govert Flinck, and to his contemporary, Jan Lievens (Rembrandt's own prospective sketches were rejected). While they set about painting the ceilings, white Italian marble was laid on the floors below and sculptures placed strategically throughout the rooms and hallways. Evidence of the 17th-century Amsterdammers' assertion of affluence and self-importance is everywhere. As you step into the public entrance hall (the Burgerzaal), for example, you'll see two maps beneath your feet; note that Amsterdam is not only at the centre of the world, but, due to the heavens painted above, also at the heart of the universe. Outside, the roof is capped with what are now merely reminders of the city's seafaring prowess. The pediment overlooking the Square is adorned by Flemish sculptor Artus Quellin's baroque-style ode to ocean, and atop the cupola, a golden weathervane fashioned in the shape of a Dutch sailing ship twirls in the breeze.

Despite this lavishness, the building was still only a town hall until the early 19th century. In 1806, Louis Napoleon was forcibly imposed as King of Holland, and after holding court at The Hague and Utrecht, finally moved to the capital two years later. He chose to stay in the town hall, which subsequently received a French Empire makeover. Although Napoleon was only here a couple of years, there's an impressive collection of furniture remaining from his stay, including various tapestries, clocks and extravagant chandeliers. In 1813, the building reverted to Dutch ownership, becoming the home of Prince Willem VI (later King Willem I). It's now the property of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and is the official residence of the Dutch Royal Family, hosting functions like the Queen's New Year reception. The palace's history is covered in greater detail in a superb English-language video presentation that's shown continuously in the Magistrate's Court on the second floor. In it you'll also learn many fascinating facts relating to the building's construction, including how 13,659 wooden piles were laid in Amsterdam's boggy foundations to support the hall - a figure drilled into the minds of all Dutch schoolchildren by means of adding 1 and 9 to either end of the total number of days in a year.

Town hall in the Dam Square (1648/65), now Royal Palace


The construction of the Royal Palace was begun in 1648 and completed in 1665. The building was designed to serve as a town hall. Jacob van Campen is the architect responsible for the overall design, while Daniël Stalpaert, the city architect, was put in charge of the technical realisation. After Van Campen’s quarrel with the city administrators, he left the city. In 1654 Stalpaert was appointed project manager in charge of the entire operation. Artus Quellijn, the Flemish sculptor, and his associates completed the sculptures. However, at the time of the opening ceremony, in 1655, the project had not been fully completed yet. It would take another ten years to finish the entire operation, whereas the internal decoration was an ongoing process that continued till well into the 18th century.

The old medieval town hall, predecessor of the current Royal Palace, depicted by Pieter Saenredam
(collection Rijksmuseum)

There were several good reasons to replace the old Gothic town hall. The administration of the rapidly growing city had outgrown its accommodation. Moreover, the condition of the medieval building had deteriorated to the point where it became dangerous to enter the premises. A new, larger town hall was badly needed. While the construction of the new town hall was still in progress, the old one burned down.

Apart from the practical reasons for embarking on the project of building a new town hall, the growing self-confidence of the city, which mainly resulted from the successful negotiations of the Münster Peace Treaty in 1648, needed an outlet. A project which comprised the planning and construction of the largest government building in 17th century Europe proved the ideal public relations effort for the rich and powerful and above all republican city of Amsterdam. The general euphoria induced the city administrators to choose the most prestigious design from several plans submitted by the leading architects of the day.

The city was proud of its town hall. Generations of school children where taught the symbolic significance of the number of wooden poles making up the foundation (13,659 poles, one for each of the days of the year with a one in front and a nine behind). The eighth Wonder of the World - a popular nickname in praise of this remarkable achievement - was designed to reflect the prosperity and power of Amsterdam. Brick was considered too pedestrian a construction material. A yellowish sandstone from Bentheim in Germany was used for the entire building (the stone has darkened considerably in the course of time, see the pictures below), while only marble was considered good enough for the interior. Jacob van Campen drew inspiration from the public buildings of Rome. A new Capitol was built for the Amsterdam burgomasters who thought of themselves as the consuls of the new Rome of the North. The glory of the Dutch Republic in general and the city of Amsterdam in particular yielded the most important historic and cultural monument of 17th century Holland. The building can be seen on many old drawings and paintings.

Until 1808 the building was used as a town hall. Subsequently, king Louis Napoleon turned it into a royal palace. The galleries were provided with wooden partitionings to create additional rooms. A balcony was added to the facade to meet royal public relations requirements. Splendid Empire furniture - still part of the collection of the palace today - served to modernise the interior decoration. In the course of the 20th century much work was done to the building. Louis Napoleon’s modifications were reversed and the palace was restored to its original state of a government building based on classical models. Since the 1960 restoration the building has been open to the public, though on a limited scale.


Jacob van Campen designed a well-balanced building in a style we call Dutch Classicism. He exercised a considerable amount of restraint as far as the basic shapes and decorative schemes were concerned. These starting points resulted in a set-up characterised by perspicuity of design. Nowhere does the decoration distract one’s attention from the overall structure. The facade is a harmonious composition based on the proportions advocated by the champions of classical architecture. The prominent plinth supports two pilaster zones, each of them corresponding with a large and a smaller window (i.e. 1.5 storeys). Corinthian pilasters articulate the upper and Composite pilasters the lower section, a scheme promoted by Vincenzo Scamozzi. The middle ressault and fronton as well as the corner pavilions slightly project beyond the building line. Capitals, festoons and other sculptural elements are of the very best quality without drawing too much attention to themselves. The festoons were copied by many designers of canal houses. Especially impressive are the large sculptured marble pediments and the bronze statues on top of the frontons.

The dome is crowned by a weather vane in the shape of the oldest version of the Amsterdam coat of arms, the cargo ship. The original plan of the dome included eight sculptures representing the points of the compass. However, this plan was never realised.

The central dome afforded a fine view of the IJ and the arrivals and departures of the many ships. A notable aspect of the building is the lack of a conspicuous main entrance. Seven unadorned arches at street level (no steps) give access to the building, indicating that the town hall belonged to everybody.

Whereas the exterior of the building is austere and reticent in character, its interior may well be called dazzling. Jacob van Campen’s town hall, now the royal palace, should therefore be a priority on every sightseer’s list.


  • Katharine Freemantle, The Baroque Town Hall of Amsterdam, Utrecht 1959
  • J.E. Huisken, K.A. Ottenheym, G. Schwartz e.a., Jacob van Campen. Het Klassieke ideaal in de Gouden Eeuw, (Summary in English), Architectura & Natura Pers, Stichting Koninklijk Paleis Amsterdam, Amsterdam 1995
  • Eymert-Jan Goossens, Treasure wrought by Shishel and Brush, The Town Hall of Amsterdam in the Golden Age, Waanders, Stichting Koninklijk Paleis Amsterdam, Zwolle 1996


dating back to 1844

Six cast iron lampposts surround the building. They date back to 1844 and were designed by Tetar van Elven (1803-1883). The royal lampposts were cleaned and painted in 1997 and are well worth a closer look.