At the corner of Lange Nieuwstraat and Agnietenstraat two rows of terraced houses join together. Although both are similarly constructed of brick, there are small differences to be seen, as there were just over 50 years between the construction of the two. The first, built in 1597 on Lange Nieuwstraat, were the Beyerskameren, which I wrote about earlier this week. The second set, built in 1651 on Agnietenstraat, are known as the Kameren van Maria van Pallaes.
The rows of houses are similar in more than just style. The Pallaes kameren were also built specifically to provide housing for the poor. Consisting of 12 homes, they were originally designed to be a home for a couple, two men, or two women.
The land on which the Pallaes kameren were built was originally part of the Agnietenklooster (Agnes Convent), which gives its name to the street. Parcels of land were set aside by the convent for the construction of buildings that would serve a charitable purpose.
Maria van Pallaes (1587–1664) was the wealthy widow of Hendrick van Schroyesteijn. Although the couple had six children, by 1650, only one daughter remained and she had joined a convent and was thus unable to inherit. Left with no relatives who could legally inherit her fortune, van Pallaes wasn’t willing to have the fortune simply turned over to the municipality upon her death. Wanting to do more with the money, she set to work to improve the lives of the poor, including the building of the row of houses on Agnietenstraat. She also set up the Maria van Pallaes Foundation, which continued to build additional homes in other areas for the poor. As well as the homes, there were donations of food, money, and fuel to the residents.
This painting by Hendrik Bloemaert — an important member of the Utrecht Caravaggisti — depicts Maria van Pallaes flanked by her children in front of the Agnietenstraat homes, distributing food to the poor. Painted in 1567 — in large part a memorial to the children who has passed as — it originally hung in the refectory at the end of the row of houses. It now finds its home in the the Centraal Museum. Interestingly, the Centraal Museum is located just a short distance down the same street in what used to be the Agnes Convent.
The 12 homes share a front and back wall that runs the length of the row. Interior walls divide the row into the 12 homes, measuring approximately 4.5 × 7 meters each. Each home has a door and window in both front and back. There is also a dormer window for the upstairs loft/attic space.
The interior designs vary slightly, with some of the homes featuring a spiral staircase that leads up to the attic area. The division of rooms varies somewhat. Shutters can be found on all of the front windows and there is a window above each door, providing additional light. On the lintel above every front door is the construction date of 1651, as well as the family coat of arms of Maria van Pallaes and her husband.
At the end of the row of houses is a larger building that looks onto the Nieuwegracht. The refectiekamer (refectory) most likely started off as a dining room for the residents. There was a basement-level kitchen, with the dining space on the ground floor. The building itself is roughly square shaped, with a triangle section added on for the entrance on the Nieuwegracht.
The entrance remains similar to its original design, although rather than one set of central steps leading up to the door, there was originally a set on each side that met at a landing in front of the door. The decoration around the door has remained the same, however. Flanking the door on each side is a window covered by wrought iron. On the windowsills behind the ironwork are small sculptures.
However, it is the plaque above the door that is most striking. It commemorates Maria van Pallaes’ building of the homes out of her love for God. The classically inspired plaque is flanked by Ionic columns and cornucopia, perhaps to signify bounty for those less fortunate and to hope for continued fortunes. Above is a shield with draped garlands within a classical curved pediment.
Thanks to the Maria van Pallaes Foundation, the homes continued to house the poor even after her death. However, the refectory did not remain part of the homes for long. By 1677, the refectory was changed into a residence.
Fortunately, the homes remained under the ownership of the Foundation until 1910, when mismanagement eventually saw the buildings turned over to the municipality. For more than 200 years, they provided a home for the city’s poor and elderly. Sadly, they began to fall into disrepair and by 1962, they were declared uninhabitable. However, restorations were carried out and by 1979, the leasehold was transferred to the Utrecht Monuments Fund, which continues today. The homes are once again filled with life and now make up a lovely neighborhood.
Utrecht: The Houses within the Canals
Het Utrechts Monumenten Fonds