Royal Palace, Dam square, Amsterdam

The Palace on Dam Square

This building was designed by architect Jacob van Campen in Dutch Classicist style. Construction started in 1648 and finished in 1665, after 17 years. Once the Amsterdam town hall, it has been in use as the Royal Palace since 1815. The Dutch royal family use it as an official reception venue, and it is also in use for expositions. The dome is crowned by a windvane with a cog ship, the old symbol of the city. There is no big front entrance on Dam Square, as the official entrance is at the back at Nieuwe­zijds Voor­burg­wal 147. When not in use for official occassions, the palace can be visited.

View of the Royal Palace on Dam square, Amsterdam

View of the Royal Palace on Dam square. On the right the Nieuwe Kerk (June 2020).

The palace was once the largest town hall in 17th century Europe. It lacks an impressive main entrance on the Dam side by design: the city council wanted to prevent possible attacks by an angry mob, just in case impopular decisions led to social unrest. In fact the building was constructed almost like a fortress, also because the gold reserves of the Wisselbank (Exchange Bank) were stored here: all windows on the ground floor have iron bars — the windows in the Vierschaar room (tribunal) have holes for muskets to ward off a possible attack. The side entrance of the bank was created on what is now Paleis­straat, by order of Louis Napoleon, when he decided that the bank was the only public function which could stay in the palace.

From City Hall to Palace

When the old gothic town hall became derilict, there were several proposals for a replacement. The current palace was the most ambitious and costly plan, approved in the euphoria of the Peace of Münster in 1648 which marked the end of the Eighty Years War with Spain. The building originally rested on 13,659 Norwegian wooden piles — 22 additional piles were added in 1945 to avoid sagging.

Dam square, Amsterdam, with Town Hall and old Weigh House, painting by Berckheyde from 1668

Dam square with the Town Hall and the old Waag (Weigh House) from 1565 in Renaissance style. The palace sandstone still has the original light yellow color. The Waag was demolished in 1808 by order of French King Louis Napoleon, who wanted a clear view from his palace. Painting from 1668 by Gerrit Adriaensz Berckheyde (1638-1698) (Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp).

After serving as the city town hall for 150 years, it was offered to French King Louis Napoleon as a palace in 1808. It was even an imperial palace for a short while, when in 1810 the Netherlands were annexed by the French Empire. Louis Napoleon started an art collection inside the palace as the Royal Museum, which would become the basis for the later Rijksmuseum collection.

View of Dam square, Amsterdam

View of Dam square. On the left the Royal Palace, straight ahead the Nieuwe Kerk (August 2021).

Ownership & Restorations

In 1813 Prince William I of the Netherlands was inaugurated here and he gave the palace back to the city. The city council feared the excessively high costs of maintenance, so they decided to hand the palace over to the state, thus it became the Royal Palace again in 1815. In 1936 all remaining city rights on the building were sold to the state for a large sum of money. The building was restored a few times in the 20th century, undoing the interior changes made by Louis Napoleon, but the balcony was preserved. After the 1960 restoration and the 2005-2009 interior restoration the building was made accessible to the public again.

When by the end of 2009 the budget for restorations (€41 million) was cut (by €6 million), all restorations above the roof line were cancelled. Thus Atlas stayed corroded green instead of the original bronze color, the dome was not cleaned and restored, nor were the other bronze statues. The eagles and crowns on the four corners, originally gilded, were not tackled either.

Dam square, Amsterdam, with Royal Palace, seen from the Eggertstraat

Dam square with Royal Palace, seen from the Eggertstraat on a rainy day (May 2021).

Palace Exterior

The Royal Palace has the largest sandstone-cladded façade in the Netherlands, made of Obernkirchen and Bentheim sandstone. Sandstone is easy to work with, but it is also quite soft and subject to discoloration. When it was built the city hall was bright yellow-white, but over the years the sandstone exterior turned a dark black-grey, not because of pollution but because of a chemical reaction of the stone — this kind of black weathering occurs in many types of sandstone. The façades already showed this black weathering 75 years after their construction. Much research was done to investigate ways to clean and protect the façade without causing damage to the stone.

Architecture & Sculptures

Architect Jacob van Campen designed the palace, but city master builder Daniël Stalpaert (1615-1676) was put in charge of the actual build. In 1654 he was put in charge of the whole enterprise, after the architect and the city conflicted over additions to the design. All sculptures were done by Artus Quellinus and his associates. The city hall opened in 1655, but the whole build was only finished in 1665 — the furnishing of the rooms was completed at the start of the 18th century. Architect Jacob Van Campen died in 1657 and therefore he never saw his design finished.

Atlas carrying the heavens on his shoulders, back of the palace, Amsterdam

Atlas carrying the heavens on his shoulders, statue on the back of the palace, cast by bell maker brothers Hemony.

Roof Statues on the Dam Side

The Dam side has three bronze statues on the roof, cast by bell maker brothers Hemony after models by Quellinus. In the center is Peace, holding an olive branch in her left hand and a Mercury staff or caduceus in her right hand. A cornucopia (horn of plenty) lies at her feet, symbol of prosperity. To her left Justitia (Justice), holding scales and a staff with an all-seeing eye, above the spot where once the gallows were erected for public executions. To her right Prudentia (Caution) holding a mirror (symbol of self-knowledge) and a snake (symbol of being careful).

Dome & Balcony

The dome — from which you could see the ships coming in on the IJ — was supposed to symbolize the true faith, the bells were to spread heavenly sounds across the town, playing psalms every hour. Originally the plan was to have eight bronze statues on the dome depicting the wind directions, but this was never realized. The balcony was created in 1808 by Louis Napoleon, French King of Holland from 1806 to 1810. When he had the former city hall transformed into his palace, he also wanted a front balcony to show himself to the people. In 1938 the balcony was downsized a bit and the fence was replaced. The lion — with crown, sword and arrows — is taken from the coat of arms of the Netherlands.

Front of the palace on Dam square, Amsterdam, with tympanum, roof statues and dome

Front of the palace on Dam square, with tympanum, roof statues and dome (June 2020).

Roof Statues on the Back

There are also three bronze statues on this side of the palace. In the center is Atlas, 6 m (19.5 ft) high, carrying the heavens on his shoulders, symbolizing the universe. The globe he carries is almost 4 m (13 ft) in diameter and weighs 1,000 kg (2,205 lbs). To the left is Temperantia (Moderation), a woman holding reins. To the right Vigilantia (Vigilance), holding a book and a torch, a rooster at her feet. On the four outer corners of the palace are statues of eagles carrying the imperial crown, granted in 1489 to Amsterdam by Austrian emperor Maximilian I. These were originally gilded, but restoration budget cuts meant they stayed corroded green.

Bronze statues on the back of the palace, Amsterdam. Atlas, Moderation and Vigilance

Bronze statues on the back of the palace: Atlas in the center, Moderation on the left and Vigilance on the right (June 2019).

Lamp Posts

The four cast iron lampposts in front of the building were added in 1844, in honor of King William II of the Netherlands (1792-1849). Originally they were gaslighted, the first lamp posts in the city. Designed by artist Paul Tétar van Elven, they were ordered by the Royal Family and were always considered part of the palace. They were electrified in 1917. There are also two of these lamp posts on the backside of the palace.

Lamp posts from 1844 in front of the palace, Dam, Amsterdam

One of the lamp posts from 1844 in front of the palace (June 2020).

Detail of a lamp posts from 1844 in front of the palace, Dam, Amsterdam

Detail of a lamp posts from 1844 in front of the palace (June 2020).

I will cover the interior of the palace in a separate blog post.

Website of the Royal Palace:

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