Felix Meritis (Happy through Merit) is a building at Keizersgracht 324, named after an intellectual society of the same name, established in 1776. In line with the period of the Enlightement, they aimed to promote arts and sciences (music, drawing, physics, commerce and literature). The society existed until 1889. The restored interior of the building has some beautiful 18th century features, like the central staircase, the oval concert hall and a domed roof, under which there used to be an astronomical observatory during its glory days. The building is a national monument.
The Enlightenment — an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated Europe in the 17th and 18th century — centered on human happiness and the pursuit of knowledge by means of reason and empirical observation. The movement promoted liberty, progress, tolerance, fraternity, and constitutional government, as opposed to the historic authority of the monarchy and the Catholic Church.
Society Felix Meritis
The intiative for the society came from watch maker and engraver Willem Writs (1732-1786). There were around 40 well-to-do founders of the society in 1776, initially housed at Leliegracht. They were motivated by a desire for societal changes as well as by economic motives — the meetings were great for establishing business contacts. Members had to be screened and pay substantial membership fees.
In 1782 they moved to the Velvet Rampart (now Oudezijds Voorburgwal). When their memberhip numbers grew, they decided to build their own place at Keizersgracht, for which they first bought two lots (a third adjacent lot was bought later). Shares were sold to finance the project. Original founder Willem Writs died in 1786, so he never got to see their new society building finished.
In the sculpture gallery of the Felix Meritis Society, plaster casts of sculptures from Roman museums and the Musée Napoléon in Paris were exhibited. French King Louis Napoleon (who ruled Holland from 1806 to 1810) wanted to become the society’s patron and donated 41 boxes with casts of antique sculptures, but he was only allowed to become an honorary member. Felix Meritis membership was open to many, as long as they were Christian males (women and Jews were excluded until late in the 19th century). Women could only visit as companions to male members at concerts. The society was disbanded in 1889.
Felix Meritis opened in 1788, with a rectangular front and a cylindrical back. It was designed by architect Jacob Otten Husly (1738-1796) in Louis XVI style. Husly also designed the Weesp city hall (the city of Weesp became part of the municipality of Amsterdam in March 2022). On the front, above the windows on the first floor, are five bas-reliefs by sculptor Jan Swart (1754-1794), symbolizing the five departments of the society. The pediment shows a beehive.
Halfway up the stairs which connect the front and back building is a large relief in stucco which shows the five departments of the society. The cylindrical back building holds the high oval concert hall. This was Amsterdam’s main music hall until late 19th century — it boasted an international reputation, famed for its marvellous acoustics. Many famous musicians performed there and their orchestra was highly praised. The small hall of the Concertgebouw (from 1885 at Van Baerlestraat) is a replica of this oval concert hall. Above the music hall is the current Shaffy hall, once the hall for the physics department.
In October 1811 Emperor Napoleon and his wife Marie Louise attended a ball here, organized by the city council. The couple stayed in Amsterdam for two weeks as part of their trip through Holland (Napoleon wanted to show himself off as the new boss, after his annexation of the Dutch Republic into the French Empire). They arrived at Felix Meritis with an impressive parade of horses, guards with torches and many coaches. The Keizersgracht had been adorned with paper lanterns. Napoleon attended, but, unlike his young second wife, he was not a dance enthusiast.
After the Felix Meritis society dissolved, the building then housed a printing company until 1948, infamous for its bad working conditions. In 1932 a fire in a lampshade factory destroyed a good part of the complex. After the Second World War the building was the headquarters of the Communist Party of the Netherlands (CPN), their newspaper (De Waarheid) was printed here from 1947 until 1981. In 1969 the Shaffy Theater opened (named after Amsterdam performer Ramses Shaffy), which soon became a center for the Dutch avant-garde.
The city then became the new owner of the building in 1982. In 1988 the Felix Meritis foundation was re-established in the building — it aimed to be a center for European cultural dialogue and cultural-political issues, but they went bankrupt in 2014. The building was then purchased by the Amerborgh company in 2014, who renovated it from 2017 to 2020.
Website Felix Meritis (NL only): https://felixmeritis.nl/
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