In 1908, the first electric train in the Netherlands ran from Rotterdam to Scheveningen. For the Rotterdam terminus and the adjoining railway viaduct new building materials were used and young designers were commissioned. The result was an engineering marvel of concrete, hidden behind Art Nouveau decorations.
In 1940 the legendary station and its popular restaurant were destroyed in the bombing of Rotterdam. The two kilometer long Hofplein rail viaduct still exists and is awaiting redesignation.
by Arjan den Boer
In 1900, the Zuid-Hollandsche Electrische Spoorweg-Maatschappij (ZHESM) was founded to establish the first Dutch electric train service between Rotterdam and The Hague-Scheveningen. Because the shareholders — the two national railway companies — could not agree on the terms it took eight years before the first train was running.
The ZHESM constructed a 28 kilometer long railway with overhead wires and its own power plant at Leidschendam. There were fifteen stops and two termini at Scheveningen and Rotterdam. Targeted customers were wealthy commuters, who had moved from Rotterdam to avoid the high local tax, as well as day-trippers going to the beach.
In 1879 Siemens presented the first electric test train in Berlin. By the end of the 19th century electric trams appeared in the streets and in 1902 the first electrically-powered main line train ran at Valtellina in northern Italy.
The Hofplein line was among the earliest electric railways. Other Dutch railways were only electrified from 1922 onwards.
In Rotterdam the ZHESM planned a two kilometer long railway viaduct to the Hofplein Square. This allowed for underpasses and the train could cross other railways at higher speeds. A novel construction method was chosen: reinforced concrete, cheaper and less noisy than a steel structure.
France already had several concrete bridges, but large concrete spans were unknown in the Netherlands. The ZHESM engaged Alphons van Hemert, an authority on bridges, as advisor. He improved the French construction method and founded the Dutch Society for the Creation of Reinforced Concrete Works.
(1857-1926) studied civil engineering in Delft. After working at the Dutch Public Works he became a lecturer at the Royal Military Academy. He wrote a textbook on applied mechanics. In 1902 he founded the predecessor of the Dutch Concrete Group (HBG), now part of BAM Group.
In 1905 and 1908 the viaduct was built in two parts.
During extensive test runs Van Hemert's construction proved reliable in practice.
The viaduct was a constructional masterpiece, but the concrete was perceived as ugly. Therefore bluestone bases, stucco with decorations and sculptures were added. They were created by Jan Altorf, best known for his stylized animal statuettes.
In 1905 he sculpted animals for the first section of the viaduct that passengers could see during the train ride through the fields, such as ducks and frogs.
Altorf was able to reduce the characteristics of his subjects to express only their essence.
Altorf (1876-1955) was a furniture maker before joining the Academy of Fine Arts in his hometown of The Hague. He decorated villas of famous architects. Besides wooden, bronze and stone animal figures, such as monkeys and birds, he also sculpted portraits.
The reliefs that Altorf created in 1908 for the second section of the viaduct were flatter than the 1905 sculptures.
Animals where still present — cows and horses — but other reliefs consisted only of symbols or letters. Two reliefs depicted the symbols for design, construction, industry and trade.
Altorf's decorations are fairly well preserved. One special relief has disappeared though, showing two elephants pulling at each other's trunk. It depicted the battle over the ZHESM between the two competing national railway companies.
The Hofplein terminus building consisted of three parts: a front building, a station hall and the platforms. The half-round front building was what one saw from the city, but it housed a privately-owned restaurant. The modest station hall and service spaces were accessible via two elevated gatehouses.
The elevated canopied platforms were separated from the building by the railway viaduct to Dordrecht, which ran perpendicular to the Hofplein line. In other words a different railway crossed right through the station. With this remarkable setup the station was positioned closer to the city centre, instead of being hidden behind another railway.
The distinctive 1908 station building would become the most famous work of the architect Jacobus Pieter Stok. His design combined a Romanesque style with American influences and Art Nouveau decorations.
Like the viaduct, the basic construction was made of concrete, implemented by Van Hemert's society. The technical installations such as heating, ventilation and elevators were also very modern.
(1862-1942) was raised in a family of architects and attended the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts and Applied Sciences. Subsequently he studied in Brussels and Delft. He specialized in townhouses, offices and factories. Stok adopted an eclectic style and was influenced by American architects.
In 1914 Stok designed the Westerkade House for the SHV Coal Trading Association. The corner building is made of volcanic stone. Like the Hofplein station it has raised facades on both sides and a pediment with a clock in the center. By that time, arch windows were no longer in fashion. The entrance is decorated with embossed ceramic tiles.
The concrete skeleton of the half-round station building was given a fashionable facade, made of white glazed brick.
The bright face showed the benefit of electric traction; normally railway stations were very sooted.
Above the large arched windows sectile mosaics were applied. Sectile tiles are not square but shaped along the contours of the depiction. They were made by De Porceleyne Fles (Royal Delft), who introduced the sectile technique in 1900.
In addition to the captions 'Electric Railway' and 'ZHESM' the mosaics featured the coats of arms of the towns along the railway: Wassenaar, Voorburg, Stompwijk, Pijnacker, Berkel and Scheveningen. The two raised parts showed the coats of arms of The Hague and Rotterdam.
In 1907 De Porceleyne Fles (Royal Delft) created similar sectile tile panels for the Roosendaal railway station. Instead of towns, the panels represented European countries; quite appropriate as Roosendaal is a border station.
By Dutch standards, Rotterdam made an early acquaintance with Jugendstil or Art Nouveau. In 1898 the so-called White House was opened, Europe's first 'skyscraper'. The architect was Willem Molenbroek, an acquaintance of Stok. The structure was after American examples, but the decorations were Art Nouveau.
Some elements also feature in the Hofplein station ten years later: the white brick, the arched windows, the steep slate roof and the pediment with a clock.
Holland has many Art Nouveau residential houses and shops, but few station buildings. Around 1900 major railway stations were built in Neo-Renaissance style, sometimes having Art Nouveau details such as tile mosaics.
The only surviving Dutch Art Nouveau station is Haarlem, which was built in 1908, the same year as Rotterdam Hofplein. The architect was Dirk Margadant (1849-1915).
Willem Stok (1865-1941), brother of the architect, designed a promotional card for Restaurant Loos that prominently featured his brothers building. In addition to his design work he was also an architect serving as an assistant to his older brother.
The Hofplein station's rounded front building was occupied by the Loos cafe and restaurant. The prominent spot was to compensate for Loos's old cafe Boneski that had to make way for the station.
The new establishment became a favorite meeting point for locals where many first dates took place.
The cafe was located on the ground floor, the restaurant was on the first floor, with a stunning view of the busy Hofplein square. On the top floor there were banqueting and conference rooms.
The mahogany paneling and furniture were provided by the Rotterdam firm Allan & Co. Besides furniture this company also produced tram and railway carriages.
Catering entrepreneur Loos (1863-1942) owned several cafes and restaurants in Rotterdam and also founded the famous tea garden and amusement park of Plaswijck.
The bronze relief portrait of Loos was created by Edema van der Tuuk, who also designed sculptures for the station gateways.
In the cafe and restaurant rooms concrete columns and beams were visible. To create a better ambiance they were stenciled with Art Nouveau motifs by the young designer Jaap Gidding. He also designed the ceramic panels above two fireplaces on either side of the buffet.
The mosaics symbolized the departure point and destination of the railway line. One panel shows the port of Rotterdam, the other the surf at Scheveningen with birds and fish. The sectile panels were executed by De Porceleyne Fles (Royal Delft), just like the ones on the facade.
A spectacular look into the 1908 Gidding & Sons decoration studio reveals the preparation of the Loos decorations. Students are painting the motifs on linen that were later transferred onto the concrete. A triangular decoration is hanging ready to be fitted between two beams.
Another student outlines the clouds for one of the ceramic panels. Jaap Gidding (on the right) and his brother Jan, both wearing suits, are drawing the other panel design on a table. Many people worked on the decorations, but 21-year-old Jaap was the artistic director.
Son of a decoration painter Jaap Gidding (1887-1955) studied at the Rotterdam Academy of Fine Arts. For some years he was a theater painter in Munich. In the 1920s Gidding designed the decorations for the Tuschinski movie theatre and vases for Royal Leerdam Glassware.
In the station hall with its glass gable roof, a stained-glass window hid the crossing railway viaduct from view. Passengers had to pass under this viaduct to reach the platforms on the ZHESM viaduct. Like the decorations in the restaurant, the large window was designed by Jaap Gidding.
We can see water, ships and clouds; perhaps the window depicted the port of Rotterdam or the sea at Scheveningen. The glasswork was probably executed by Kerling in The Hague, where Gidding had learned stained-glass technique in 1902.
Few windows by Gidding are known to predate 1918, when he started to produce stained-glass himself. In 1919 he created a small window for his own house in Rotterdam-Kralingen. It shows the transition from Art Nouveau to the more abstract Art Deco. Gidding is now considered one of the most important Dutch Art Deco designers.
Because of the restaurant, the entrance to the station was not at the front as it usually was. There were elevated entrances on both sides of the building. They were called Neptune Gate and Mermaid Gate after the sculptures by Lambertus Edema van der Tuuk. Heads of the sea god and a mermaid formed the keystones of the arched gates. Fish were sculpted in their stone frames. The sea motifs referred to the railway line's destination.
The decorations by Edema van der Tuuk were the most traditional of the complex. In contrast, the wrought iron fences in the gates featured geometric shapes and stylish curls.
The Frisian vicar's son (1872-1942) studied at the Amsterdam School of Applied Arts, the Brussels Academy and the Paris École des Arts Décoratifs. He became a teacher at the Rotterdam Academy of Art. In 1920 he designed portrait medallions on the facade of the Rotterdam City Hall.
On May 14, 1940 Rotterdam was bombed by the Germans. There were 800 casualties and large parts of the city lay in ruins. Hofplein station burned down completely, but the walls remained intact.
Restoration would have been possible, but like many other battered buildings it was quickly demolished. Rotterdam decided to build a new city without looking back to the past.
Today nothing is left of the prewar station building and the 1956 building has also been torn down. In 2006 the last regular train ran on the Hofplein viaduct, followed by the last light rail train in 2010. The viaduct still exists, including the original platform basement. It is a listed building since 2002.
Two Rotterdam housing corporations have acquired the viaduct from the Dutch Railways to give it a new future. The arches under the former platforms were restored in 2011. They now house a Mini Mall with trendy shops and cafes. On the top theatre performances are held and a city vegetable garden is established.
The ultimate objective of the Hofbogen project office is redesignation of the entire railway viaduct. The High Line in New York City serves as an inspiration.
As of mid 2013, there appears to be little progress and the corporations consider selling off the Hofbogen.
The decorations of the lost Rotterdam Hofplein railway station
J.P. Stok Wzn. - Architect te Rotterdam. Uitgevoerde gebouwen, projecten enz. Bussum 1917
[Crimson Architectural Historians], Toekomstvisie De Hofbogen. Het langste gebouw van Rotterdam, Rotterdam 2008 pdf
Laman, Marc, Amerikaanse invloeden in het oeuvre van de Rotterdamse architect J.P. Stok Wzn. (1862-1943), in: Jaarboek Monumentenzorg 1993 pdf
Simon Thomas, Mienke e.a. Jaap Gidding. Art Deco in Nederland, Rotterdam 2006
Smit, J.F. ZHESM, Rotterdam Hofplein - Den Haag - Scheveningen Kurhaus. Hoe het spoor elektrisch werd, Rotterdam 1989