Frederiks square, The palace of Volksvlijt

Photo of author

Daneel Bouden

Once in a blue moon, a translator gets confronted with a word that’s impossible to translate. Today is such a day. Volksvlijt is the word. Not only volksvlijt but a palace of it. Another aspect of the palace of volksvlijt is that it no longer exists. It burnt down in 1929. The palace was completed at the end of the eighteen fifties. It was quite a building, about the size of Dam Square, much bigger than the royal palace. It was primarily built out of glass and cast iron, and its dome was 64 meters high. It was lit by 6000 gas lamps, then the latest invention in artificial lighting. It was placed on “her Frederiksplein,” (Frederik’s square) as I already mentioned it was burned to the ground and in its stead, in 1961, they build “De Nederlandse Bank” (The National Dutch Bank), an imposing highrise with lots of security around it to keep thieves out. The Square could have done without it. But this is not about the bank, and it’s about the palace. Actually, the word palace was quickly dropped by the commoner; they called it volksvlijt. Volsvlijt is 2 words joined together; Volks means “of the people”, vlijt means diligence. Assiduousness is another possible translation, but I’ll stick with diligence. It was built by a Jewish doctor called Samuel Sarphati and opened its doors on August the sixteenth, 1864.Palace for Volksvlijt

Sarphati was a man with incredible energy and perseverance; he took upon himself one project after another; he had reduced the amount of stench that would sometimes afflict the town by placing public urinals and toilets at strategic places. He started up a garbage collection company; not only did it collect garbage and every other vile object, but it also employed the poor. He set up a bread factory. Consequently, bread could be sold for a far lesser price, making bread, the city’s prime staple, a lot cheaper and therefore more available for the poor.

But there’s more, his most impressive project was that of a property developer; he wanted to create a new neighbourhood (one that I incidentally live in) outside the Utrecht gate. It was to be a pleasant neighbourhood with decent housing, and he also thought it would be good for the city’s future. Trade had been its main form of occupation until then, but things weren’t going that well anymore; he thought that industry was the way forward; smart cookie wasn’t he. He’d been to London, to the world’s fair in 1851. He’d seen the glass dome on Crystal palace, he’d seen the best that industry could produce, and he wanted something like it in Amsterdam. An imposing building where everyone could see how the Dutch economy was developing. Hence the palace for volksvlijt.

To Sarphati, the palace was just a part of a far greater vision; the city had to expand; it had not done so in a long time, not since the 17th century. He could not realize all his planned endeavours; the money wasn’t there, and to make matters worse, he died. However, the Amstel Hotel was in the process of being build (the most expensive hotel in Amsterdam), although it did end up a lot smaller than planned.

After the fireThe palace turned out to be a flop; it was simply too expensive to run; the management saw themselves forced time after time to rent the place out for purposes that it was not intended for, the amusement of a poor level. That got it the nickname Volkspret or freely translated: the jolly palace. The building came to a sad end; on the night of the 17th to the 18th of April 1929, the building burned down. Its final remains, the gallery was removed in 1961 to make room for the National bank building. Was that the end of the palace? There’s a small group of people who are trying to have the building resurrected. They are led by an artist who bears the name of Wim T. Schippers. Unfortunately, the wind doesn’t seem to be blowing its way.

The deeds of Sarphati were not forgotten; a Jewish banker, liberal politician, and gracious philanthropist named Abraham Carel Wertheim (1832-1897) made sure that in 1886 a monument in his honour was erected. He himself was to step into Sarphati’s footsteps. His biography testifies to an impressive list of initiatives. He organized the world fair of 1883 and rebuilt the city’s theatre on Leidseplein after that building had burned down in 1890. After his death, he had a small park named after him, Wertheimpark. Sarphati also had a park named after him, a bigger one, but Wertheim’s is nicer.

Schiphol airport had a small part of the palace for Volksvlijt rebuild on its premises; it serves as both a bar and restaurant.

There’s a lovely brochure (Dutch) for you to download with lots of images of both its interior as well as exterior.