If These Walls Could Talk: the Charms and Challenges of Historic Renovations

Samuel Sarphati did not believe in the word “impossible.”

The Dutch physician, city planner, entrepreneur and dreamer was born in Amsterdam in 1813, just as the decades of the Napoleonic Wars were finally easing their siege on the city. The Netherlands could practically taste independence from France. It was a time of hope and inspiration. Sarphati, barely walking when Waterloo gave its freedom back to the Kingdom of the Netherlands, must have felt the electricity in the air. Freedom, creation, possibility, grand design: these ideas were as much a part of Sapharti’s early years as mother’s milk. When he launched a career as a city planner, it made sense to envision a grand scheme comprising a luxury hotel on the east bank of the city’s river, bringing Amsterdam luxury, commerce and beauty on a scale never before seen.

Sarphati died before it was completed, but his fantasy hotel—now the InterContinental Amstel Amsterdam—stands to this day, with relics from its history greeting guests at every turn. The lobby’s shimmering chandelier, now electric, is the same sparkling structure lit by candles at the hotel’s opening; the winding staircase leading up to the first floor features a clock gifted to the hotel by Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands herself; and on the first floor, the plush leather seats where guests enjoy hushed conversation are as old and well-preserved as the building itself.

The Amstel, like many of Europe’s great buildings, has held on to its mantle through a fraught and delicate balance of renovation and reverence, staying loyal to Sarphati’s 19th century dream while making the modernisations necessary to keep it relevant in the 21st. The architect taking care of this painstaking work must not just preserve history but help write its next chapter.

“When we first started working on the hotel, it was in a very bad situation,” says Gijsbert Van Hoogevest of Van Hoogevest Architecten, a Dutch firm that has refurbished, strengthened and fortified some of the Netherland’s most iconic buildings. “Everyone can now see the differences from the building’s former situation to how it is now. There were leakages, some of the wood was rotten, the paintwork and masonry were in sad shape. So we’re very grateful to work on such an incredible building and make it fine and solid again.”

Restoring a building as emblematic as the Amstel is like buoying the mast of a ship in a bottle, with precision and strategy, and one wrong move can spoil all your previous work. Van Hoogevest launched extensive research on the building’s history, arming his team with reverence for the past before making changes toward the future.

Amsterdam’s Rijskmuseum, Van Hoogevest’s emblematic renovation masterpiece

“Our philosophy is to be quite careful,” he says. “The cultural heritage philosophy in Holland is that if you get involved in a building which needs repair, in a technical way but also in an architectural way, you have to look into the history and understand exactly what happened in past centuries. In repairing the technical situation, it’s crucial you must not erase things that have been done in the past.”

It’s a technique that Van Hoogevest had opportunities to hone. His firm was also brought in to help restore Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the flagship art and history museum opened in 1885. Its stunning castle-like structure underwent a nearly decade long overhaul in the early 2000s. They were required to strip the building of some later additions, add climate control and security features, and build, from the inside out, a new structure at once radically new while maintaining the look and feel of the original.

Parisian architect Jean Philippe Nuel oversaw the transformation of Marseille’s 820-year-old hospital into the InterContinental Marseille Hotel Dieu from 2010-2013. He believes the key to working on a heritage structure is collaboration. “Renovation is a collective work, working with the conservation architect and the interior designer,” he says. “All the patrimonial analysis is carried out upstream and also during the demolishing period to determine precisely which parts must be preserved and refurbished.”

Nuel believes it’s paramount that the architect approach these projects with a keen sense of reverence, not just for the heritage status of the architecture but for the building’s deep, long-forged relationship with its environment.

“Beyond the great history of that kind of building, they also have their own soul, not only made by the specific materials and construction techniques but also thanks to the blood ties that the building itself has forged with its surroundings and the city,” he says. “Contemporary buildings can have great qualities but cannot be compared with the same criteria.”

The idea of a building that is more than its physical structure resonates across many European heritage properties, from the Gregorian chants that once echoed from the stones of the InterContinental Porto Palacia das Cardosa in Portugal, when it first served as a monastery in the 15th century; to the gossip that whispered through the corridors of the InterContinental Paris Le Grand, inaugurated by Empress Eugenie, wife of Napoleon III, in 1862, where an entire floor was reserved for guests’ servants, and Victor Hugo and Emile Zola both stayed, finding inspiration within its hallways.

The “escalier d’apparat” of Marseille’s 820-year-old Hôtel Dieu

For architects like Nuel, renovations become about more than construction and design. Pulling down a wall, in such cases, is not just removing cement and stone; it’s erasing memories that encapsulate the spirit of a city.

But in the process of modernisation, the past can also be recovered. At the Amstel, for example, new glass windows help the building sustain a much higher energy efficiency. But during his research into the building’s history, Van Hoogevest learned that the window frames, which had long been painted a dark green, were in fact once a rich red that perfectly complemented the building’s red and yellow brick. He petitioned the city for permission to alter the paint of the historic building, and in June 2017, the new—actually, old—red-brick window frames were unveiled. In architecture, as in art, the past is prologue.

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