Van Straelentower: the higher the richer

The Van Straelen Tower
Van Straelen’s Tower (Source:

In the neighbourhood of Hof van Liere and Saint-James’ Church (St-Jacob) you can find a very nice example of a ‘pagadder’ tower. The tower belonged to the mansion of mayor Gilbert Van Straelen. He lived in the 16th century. You can find the tower in the Korte St-Annastraat at the end of the Frans Halsplein.

The word pagadder is a bastardization of the Spanish pagador or paymaster. In the local dialect pagadder for some reason has become the name for a small boy. Maybe it is because the Spanish paymasters (soldiers whose responsibility it was to pay the other soldiers’ wages) were much smaller and weaker than their active colleagues.

It is said these young boys had to sit in the tower and look out for ships sailing into the harbour. As soon as they saw a ship, they had to inform their master of the arrival.

That should explain the existence of the towers. It may be clear from this example that this old story is just a tale. From here it is impossible to see the tiniest part of the river.

Italian influence

These city towers arose in the sixteenth century. They are based on Italian examples. It is no wonder that they appeared in this timeframe. Many artists from the North went to Italy to learn about renaissance art. They did not only bring along sketches of ancient sculptures and modern paintings. They also drew the places they had visited.

Van Straelen Tower seen from the inside
Seen from the inside (Source:

Very soon the major families and merchants started to outdo their competitors by building city towers that were higher and more impressive than their competitors’. Van Straelen’s must have been one of the best examples. We will never be really sure because at one time there must have been over 40 of these constructions. Only a handful have survived.

But they were functional nonetheless

Smart merchants do not only think of prestige, at least not all of the time. These towers are a nice example hereof. Inside the towers a staircase between the different storeys of the house could be built. That way more space remained available inside the rooms. Most towers are tucked away in a corner and are much smaller than Van Straelen’s.

The building is now used by Emmaus, an organization that takes care of young people who live in difficult circumstances.

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