The gothic Waag (Weigh House) on Nieuwmarkt square was St. Anthony’s Gate once, one of the major city gates in the medieval city wall. These days the only remnants of that defense wall are the Waag, part of the Regulars Gate (Mint tower) and defense tower Schreierstoren. An earlier smaller version of this gate existed around 1425, but the construction of the current building (a main gate with four towers and front gate with two towers) was started in 1488. A gable stone on the tower on the corner of the Zeedijk and Geldersekade shows 28 April 1488, the laying of the first stone. Constructed partly over the water with a lock below it, the walls of this gate were almost 2 m (6.5 ft) thick.
The building served as a city gate until 1592. In 1614 the canals on both sides of the building were partly filled in and covered to create a square. The gate was never attacked, but from here Amsterdam troops did attack the advancing troops of the Duke of Guelders in 1512. When the city expanded, the defensive wall was demolished between 1603 and 1613 and the gate was repurposed.
The terrain of the square around it was raised, so part of the gate is now below ground level — the building is actually higher than it appears. Over time the gate building has also served as weigh house, guild house, museum, fire station and anatomical theater. Restaurant-Café In De Waag has been on the ground floor since 1996. The building has been a national monument since 1970 (white-orange shield).
Nieuwmarkt & Bijleveldsche Sluis
Nieuwmarkt (New Market) square was formed in 1614 when the water around St. Anthony’s Gate was covered and partly filled in. Below the square the water of the Geldersekade (Guelderian Quay) and the Kloveniersburgwal (Arquebusiers’ Rampart) are still connected by a wide culvert, officially a bridge and lock from around 1425 called Bijleveldschesluis (Bijleveld Sluice).
That name came from former Water Authority Bijleveld (governing land east of the city), which controlled the lock until the end of the 15th century. The lock was needed because the water of the Geldersekade back then had a direct connection to the brackish water of the IJ with its tides. A part of the culvert runs below the southeastern part of the Waag building. It was completely renewed in 1998-1990.
The square soon became a busy daily market with a variety of goods in 1755, bustling and crowded by the end of the 19th century. From 1807 untill 1879 death sentences were carried out on a scaffold in front of the building. WW2 meant the end of the daily market around the Waag. The entire square is dominated by cafés and restaurants. These days there is a smaller daily market again, a farmer’s market on Saturdays and a bric-à-brac market on Sundays during summer.
Weigh House & Guilds
In 1617 the old city gate was repurposed as a weigh house. Porches were constructed, with large balances below them. The city’s first weigh house (from 1341, replaced in 1565) stood on Dam square until 1808, demolished when French King Louis Napoleon wanted a clear view from his palace. Other weigh houses were on the Botermarkt (current Rembrandtplein) until 1874 and on the Westermarkt near Prinsengracht until 1857. To have a weigh house was one of the important privileges obtained when a town got city rights, which Amsterdam held since 1275 (debated, some say it actually was 1306).
Merchants had to have their products weighed here (for a fee) before being allowed into the city — this ensured fair trade, important for the reputation of a trading town. They also weighed anchors and artillery for the nearby wharfs here, besides goods for daily trade. The fees collected were an important part of the city’s income.
Several guilds took up office here, each had their own entrance through one of the towers. Left of the front gate were the clogmakers, to the right of the front gate were the surgeons (Theatrum Anatomicum). Back left of the main gate were the painters (St. Lucas), back right of the main gate the masons (St. Barbara), front left of the main gate the blacksmiths (St. Eloys), front right of the main gate the militia (Schutterij). Most of the embellishments inside and outside were created by the masons, as proofs of their master craftsman examinations. They also built the staircase and the fireplace.
The statue of Hippocrates, above the entrance of the surgeons tower, disappeared in the 19th century — during a restoration in 2014 a new statue was placed.
In 1691 an octagonal dome was built in the center of the Waag, which became the Theatrum Anatomicum of the surgeon’s guild, used as a lecture hall. During winter months the corpses of deceased or executed criminals were dissected here during anatomy lessons. In 1632 Rembrandt painted The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp here, now in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. The cupola was adorned with 87 coats of arms of surgeons. The hall was originally decorated with skeletons and stuffed animals. Painted anatomy lessons hung side by side with the group portraits of senior surgeons. Anatomical education was given in the Waag until 1869.
Saved from Demolition
The militias and guilds were disbanded in 1795. In 1812 the last citizen’s guards stopped operating and the weigh house function was removed in 1819. From 1815 until 1832 a fencing school used the guard rooms. There were plans in 1827 to completely demolish the Waag, in order to create a large Catholic cathedral here (according to a secret covenant between King Willem I and the Vatican). After the 1830 secession of Belgium from the United Netherlands, these plans were abolished.
In 1829 there were again plans to demolish the Waag, together with the Haringpakkerstoren (which stood on the corner of Singel and Prins Hendrikkade) and the Jan Roodenpoortstoren (which stood on the corner of Singel and Torensteeg). The medical collections and paintings in the Theatrum Anatomicum probably saved the building from demolition, because they attracted many visitors. A replaced foundation below the Masons’ tower in the 1970s became a problem when the rest of the building continued to sag. A complete foundation restoration followed in 2014-2015.
Tenants & Functions
The Waag has had many functions and tenants over the years. After the guilds were disbanded by the government in 1818 and the Waag lost its function as a weigh house in 1819, a great variety of tenants followed: a fencing hall, a cholera commission, a workshop for the public lighting department, a furniture workshop, an anatomy museum, a fire station (from 1874 to 1888), the municipal archives (until 1914) and more.
The Amsterdam Historical Museum was located in the Waag from 1926 until 1975 (when they moved to the Burgerweeshuis on Kalverstraat). The Jewish Historical Museum was here from 1932 until 1987 (when they moved to the synagogue complex on Jonas Daniël Meijerplein). The building then stood empty from 1989 until 1994. After an extensive restoration and reconstruction in 1996, Waag Future Lab has taken up the top floors, researching technological and societal changes. The ground floor is in use by Restaurant-Café In De Waag.
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