In the heart of Amsterdam, a building proudly overlooks Dam-square. Built between 1648 and 1655, the city hall was the largest non-religious building in the (western) world. It reflects, to an almost hubristic extent, the enormous wealth the city gained in the 17th-century. The gentlemen-directors (as the mayor and his officials were called) of the city thought that Amsterdam needed a city hall that would emphasize its position as the commercial capital of the world. So it had to be big, built in the architectural style of (Dutch) classicism, and it had to impress everyone who walked in. Because, though its unparalleled size and splendor might suggest otherwise, the building was the city hall, and thus open to the public.
Upon entering, the citizens of 17th-century Amsterdam were overwhelmed by the size and luxury of the place. In the burgerzaal (common room) people would literally face God’s creation. A map of the Eastern and Western hemisphere and the known stars and planets, was laid-in in the floor. Visitors would literally have to walk through God’s creation as it was spread out at their feet. The message was clear: Amsterdam was the centre of the world.
The building was used as the city hall until 1808. After Napoleon Bonaparte conquered the Netherlands, the Dutch Republic became a kingdom in 1806, and two years later King Louis Napoleon (Napoleon's brother) made the city hall his residence. The iconic building of Amsterdam’s Golden Age became a royal palace. Louis wanted to be able to wave at his subjects from his palace like a proper king. In order to do so a balcony was attached to the palace, which is still there today. Fortunately, no further big changes were made to the building. And apart from a big collection of so-called empire-furniture (and the aforementioned balcony) the Bonapartes didn’t leave a permanent mark on their temporary residence.
After the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, the city decided that the icon of Amsterdam’s wealth could maintain its function as a royal palace. The era of Dutch republicanism was over and the new king of the Netherlands, William I, received the building as a gift from the city of Amsterdam in 1815. The four street lights in front of the building were placed to commemorate this act of generosity.
Today the building is (again) open to the public. And although it’s unfortunate that visitors have to pay an entrance fee to enter a building that was built as a place to serve the citizens of Amsterdam, everybody who visits the city should do so.