Nienhuys mansion, Herengracht 380-382, Amsterdam

Nienhuys Mansion

At Heren­gracht 380-382 an opulent building from 1891, designed by architect Abraham Salm (1857-1915) as residence for wealthy tobacco planter Jacob Nienhuys (1836-1927). The rich exterior was done in the style of the French castles along the Loire river and also inspired by the mansion of William Vanderbilt on 5th Avenue in New York. The sculptures on the front were done by Johannes Franse (1851-1895, who also did the pediment and sculptures on the Concert­gebouw) and by Atelier Van den Bossche en Crevels (who also did ornaments at Spui 10A, the Barlaeus Gymnasium, Central Station and Rijks­museum passageway).

Façade of the Nienhuys mansion, Herengracht 380-382, Amsterdam

Façade of the Nienhuys mansion, Heren­gracht 380-382 (September 2022).

The front had an entrance which allowed coaches to enter the building (the garden had a coach house). Inside the house is a central light­court with glass dome, a beauti­ful stair­way, ceiling paintings and more. The interior of the building was done in a variety of styles: a Moorish bathroom, billiards room in Louis XVI style, living room in Dutch Renaissance style, and so on. The mansion was equipped with (at the time) ultra-modern equipment: for clean water, heating, fresh air and electric light (it even had its own inhouse power station). I visited the Nienhuys mansion in September 2022 during Open Monuments Day.

Coach house in the garden of Herengracht 380, Amsterdam, photograph from 1888

Coach house in the garden on a photograph from 1888 (Stads­archief Amsterdam).

History of the Building

Having returned from the Dutch East Indies 18 years earlier, Nienhuys bought Heren­gracht 382 in 1887. He had it renovated, but in 1888 drying operations caused a fire. Strong winds and freezing cold hindered the fire fighters — the building was severely damaged and so it was demolished. In the mean­time Nienhuys had also bought the adjacent number 380 and had that demo­lished too. Next he commissioned architect Abraham Salm to design a new house — done in neo-style with French, German and American influences and an extravagant number of embel­lishments. Nienhuys spent a lot on art works too, the house filled with paintings by Willem Witsen and Jacob, Matthijs and Willem Maris.

Herengracht 382, Amsterdam, destroyed by fire in 1888

Herengracht 382, destroyed by fire in 1888 (Stads­archief Amsterdam).

In 1891 Nienhuys and his family and personel moved in. He had planned to hold large receptions and big parties on the ground and first floor of his new house, to endear himself with the city’s elite. Unfortu­nately for him, his elite neighbors saw him as a parvenu, an ostentatious upstart, who lacked the proper manners despite his great fortune. This may have been one of the reasons why in 1909 Nienhuys sold the house to the Deli Maat­schappij (their office was at Heren­gracht 286-290). He moved to his mansion in the town of Baarn (Utrecht province). In 1884-1886 he had built a country home there, called Villa Medan, named after the city of Medan on the island of Sumatra.

Birds eye view of Villa Medan in Baarn, drawing from 1883 by architect A. Salm

Birds eye view of Villa Medan in Baarn, drawing from 1883 by architect A. Salm (Stads­archief Amsterdam).

Herengracht 380 Residents

There were various owners of Heren­gracht 380 after 1909, the Deli Company (1909-1921), the Deutsche Bank (1921-1945), the Neder­landse Bank (1948-1965) and the Dutch Ministry of Finance (1965-1993). The building has been a national monument since 1970. In 1993 the mansion was restored by the Rijks­gebouwen­dienst (Dutch Government Buildings Agency), with new construction in the former gardens. Since 1997 the building houses the NIOD, the Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies. The archives of the NIOD in the cellar are the former safes of the Deutsche Bank.

Innovative 19th Century Engineering

The house had electric lighting, fresh water pipes, central heating and elaborate and extensive air conditio­ning system. The family had a water closet on each floor with a small water fountain to wash their hands — but their staff still had to use an old-fashioned can without these modern improvements. People in the 19th century were quite obsessed about air quality (many thought that epidemics spread through miasms, through bad air and stench). There was a steam-powered heating system in the cellar (stoked with coal), self-regulating, with individual heat adjustment for each room and bath water heated by the system. In the coach house was a gas powered dynamo for electricity. The house was the first in Amsterdam to have 300 light bulbs, which were ostentatiously shown instead of being hidden inside lamp shades.

Jacob Nienhuys

Jacob Nienhuys (1836-1927) was the first Dutch planter to arrive in Sumatra in 1863. The Deli Sultanate (Northern Sumatra) had granted Dutch tobacco planters the right to start plantations on the east coast. Nienhuys was one of the founders of the Deli Company in northern Sumatra in 1869 — using capital obtained from Peter Wilhelm Janssen he created large tobacco plantations there, which rendered huge profits very fast. The Neder­landsche Handel-Maat­schappij (NHM, the Dutch Trade Company, a predecessor of ABN) bought half their stock. When in 1868 Nienhuys was indicted of killing seven Chinese coolies by flogging, he was expulsed from Deli by the sultan. Back here he was said to have left Sumatra in 1869 for “health reasons”.

Jacobus Nienhuys, detail of a painting by Willem Maris from around 1900

Jacobus Nienhuys (1836-1927), detail of a painting by Willem Maris (1844-1910) from around 1900.

In Amsterdam in 1893 Nienhuys started, together with a few others, the Maatschappij voor Volks­woningen (MVV, Corporation for People’s Housing), a philan­tropic building association. They built blocks on the current Van Reigersbergenstraat and 3e Hugo de Grootstraat in the Frederik Hendrik neigh­bor­hood. The company existed until 1921.

Serfdom & Exploitation in Colonial Times

The Sultan of Deli gave a land concession to Nienhuys to grow tobacco, but Nienhuys faced a problem: the local Malays and Bataks did not want to work as plantation laborers. So in 1864 he brought in 120 Chinese coolies from Penang, Malaysia. After several years of trials, Deli tobacco became a sought-after high-quality cigar wrapper. When the Deli Company developed large scale plantations, every year thousands of Chinese coolies were brought in from Penang and Singapore, as well as workers from Java, Banjar and India. In 1890 the Dutch transported more than 20,000 Chinese workers to Deli. Succeeding Jacob Nienhuys, J. Th. Cremer (1847-1923) became admini­strator of the Deli Company in 1870. His letter to the Dutch parliament in 1876 led to the issuing of the Coolie Ordonnance in 1880.

Huge profits were made because of the underpaid cheap labor. In 1896 the sale of Deli tobacco bales in Amsterdam rendered 32 million guilders (around $ 350 million today). Between 1864 and 1938 this reached 277 billion guilders (current around $ 300 trillion). In the Nether­lands meanwhile, these tobacco planters were hailed as brave pioneers, who managed to create wealth from nothing, despite hardships and difficult conditions. But the reality was not so pretty: the thousands of workers imported from China and Java were exploited, under­paid, over­worked and mis­treated, their freedoms heavily restricted by various colonial laws and regulations.

Chinese coolies and overseers in Sumatra in 1870, photo collection Deli Company

Chinese coolies and overseers in 1870, photo collection Deli Company (Nationaal Archief).

Colonial Laws

The Agrarian Law from 1870 meant that Europeans in the Dutch East Indies could now privately lease unculti­vated land for 75 years on the cheap. The colonial government of the Dutch East Indies issued the Coolie Ordonnance in 1880, which contained a penal sanction. This gave the planters the right to be their own judges over the thousands of contract workers, to punish as they saw fit. The reasons for punishing a coolie could include laziness, insolence or any attempt to flee. Coolies were often beaten and mistreated, manhunts were a regular occurrence. They were seen as dumb, lazy and unreliable, racism and violence against them were rampant.

Coolies on a tobacco plantation in Sumatra, between 1890 and 1900

Coolies on a tobacco plantation in Sumatra, between 1890 and 1900 (Rijks­museum).

Reports Swept Under the Rug

In practice the coolies were serfs, almost without rights. Yet this form of justice in Deli was presented in the Dutch newspapers of the time as necessary and also as very effective. In 1902 the ugly reality and atrocity of this system was exposed in a bombshell pamphlet by a Dutch lawyer from Medan, J. van den Brand, called “The Millions from Deli”. He showed that the large profits from the tobacco plantations were paid for in human lives and misery.

The governor-general was then forced to sent attorney general Rhemrev to Medan to investigate, whose report confirmed the accusations in the pamphlet. He refused to make the report public though, despite many requests to do so, even denying the atrocities in parliament. The Dutch government did its utmost to sweep the report of the inhumane conditions under the rug — the penal sanction was only abolished in 1931. The report was rediscovered in 1987 by Jan Breman, a researcher from the University of Amsterdam.

Photo Gallery of the Nienhuys Mansion (September 2022)

The NIOD (Nederlands Instituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie) was founded in 1945 to do independent research regarding the history of the Second World War in the Netherlands and the Dutch Indies.

Website of the NIOD:

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