Category: Shop

City Hall: a miraculous rebirth

Since a few years the City Hall, situated in the middle of the Meir, has revived. This time not as a festive hall, but as a shopping centre. Shopping times two, one could say, as the complex lies within the main shopping boulevard of the town.

The Hall was built in 1908 based on plans made by Alexis Van Mechelen. Van Mechelen found inspiration in classic architecture, but used the different elements freely in an eclectic style. Which is typical of the epoch. The monumental facade is situated at the point where the Meir slightly changes direction. Van Mechelen turned this difficulty into an opportunity. He designed a concave facade, so that the City Hall gets all attention from all walkers-by. Not only those heading for Central Station, but just as well from strollers heading for the historical city center.

For the facade Van Mechelen used both light coloured sandstone and darker chalkstone. Remarkable is the central entrance, highly ornamented in a more baroque style. It is crowned with a gilded niche. Many stories exist as to why the niche remained empty, and what the developers wanted to put there. So far I haven’t found a satisfactory answer.

In the first part of its history, the building served as a host to a number of events. The very first Antwerp Car Show took place there. In the 1950’s and 1960’s people went there to see the latest trends in radio and tv. Millions of people visited the traditional Antwerp Book Fair. The Mayor invited the town’s inhabitants to his balls. Santaclaus visited the town’s kids,…

Lightning strikes

In 2000 a Christmas Gifts Fair took place in the building. Local companies of all kind had put up small stands in the inner square. Probably one of the stands caused a short-circuit and the whole place burned down. The result was indeed a very sorry sight to see. Fortunately nobody was hurt.

After a few years City Hall opened its doors again, in all its splendour. Only now we do not go there for the Mayor’s Ball anymore, but it has become one of the most flashy shopping malls in towns.

You can visit City Hall virtually on the Interbuild-site.

More on shopping on the City Hall website.

Could I have a Tietz, please?

German traders played a major role in the development of Antwerp in the 19th and early 20th centuries. One of the names that still rings a bell with some of the elder locals is Leonard Tietz. Where one can now find “A l’Innovation”, next to the Van Dyck statue along the Meir, Leonard Tietz opened his Grands Magasins.

The Grands Magasins Tietz, Meir
The Grands Magasins Tietz, Meir

As the name implies, he found inspiration in the large department stores that had arisen in late 19th century Paris. One of the products that he created a name with for himself was a type of straw hat. People like Maurice Chevalier usually wore that type of hat. People in Antwerp referred to these hats as a ‘Tietz’.

The richly ornamented façade functions as a kind of prelude. It gives the public a foretaste of the riches that await them inside. It is a design of the Antwerp architect Joseph Hertoghs. Hertoghs acted as a kind of house architect for the German colony around the turn of the century.

After World War I, Tietz and many other German families got under fire in the anti-German climate of those days.

All of Tietz’ shops, including the one in Antwerp and the one in Brussels in the Nieuwstraat, were confiscated. The Belgian government sold them publicly. It was the Bernheim family, who originated from Alsace, and had started their own chain of department stores under the name “A l’Innovation”, who bought the Tietz shops for their own use. Interestingly enough, the Inno chain later fused with Galleria Kaufhof, which is a descendant of … the Tietz shops in Germany.

Recently Inno restored the façade to its original condition. A few less successful changes from the 60’s and 70’s have disappeared. The project cost over 4 mio euro, but the result shows the decision was right.

Meir: a swamp turned into a shopping center

Meir Shopping Street
Source: Alles over Antwerpen

Today the Meir is the shopping heart of Antwerp, visited by millions of people each year. Around 300.000 people a week visit the Meir, so be sure you’ll never feel alone. Most of the buildings you see there date from the 20th century. Two notable exceptions you will find in the middle part. Both are works of Jan-Pieter van Baurscheidt, the most important architect of the 18th century. He built the Osterriethhouse (currently under restauration) and the so-called Royal Palace, both for the van Susteren family in the middle of the 18th century.

There are many other remarkable buildings a bit further east. For instance the former Tilquin store (nowadays a Massimo Dutti shop) which is a remarkable example of art deco. This is worth a story of its own. So is the ‘Stadsfeestzaal’ (the City Festive Hall) and the buildings Innovation now occupies, that once belonged to Leonard Tietz.

Meir = Moor

Hand sculpture

The name Meir is like the word moor in English: a wetland, and indeed the most western part of Meir lay lower than the surrounding places, so water gathered there. Until the 12th century the city walls were situated just west of the Meir. When the city started growing in the 13th century, the Meir was turned into a canal with walking space on both sides.

Important people started to settle around the Meir. Among them the Pijpelinckxfamily, traders in tapestry. A grandson of theirs would turn out to be a genial painter: P.P. Rubens.

Gradually the waterway was covered and the city grew further east. In the 19th century the council decided to demolish the old defensive wall. At that moment they also decided to create a new axis of avenues to greet arriving visitors. The first part of the axis was the Leysstraat, the second part the Meir. Until the late ’80s of the 20th century the Meir was full of traffic. After the underground tramway was built the council turned it into a pedestrian area. A real success, taking into account the 300.000 visitors that walk the Meir every week.

A store with a story

This facade in the Kipdorpvest now houses a branch of the America Today chain, and even if you are not really looking for a new pair of jeans you should really take a look inside.

The place used to be a theatre in the 1940’s and further on, until television became too popular in the 1960’s, and the place had to close its doors in the early 1970’s.

The theatre was known as the AB, short for Ancienne Belgique (Old Belgium) and it was run by the same management as the AB in Brussels and in Ghent. For some time Bruno Coquatrix, who was to lead the famous Olympia theatre in Paris, used to work as an assistant in the Brussels office of AB.

AB was a vaudeville theatre. Every night a show was performed that contained an orchestra, a ballet, some clowns or comedians, some acrobats, a show with poodles, some local singers, but the top of the bill usually were international stars from France, Germany, Great Britain or the USA. Gilbert Bécaud was here, so was Freddy Quinn, even Louis Armstrong performed in this theatre. Tickets were sold at a reasonable price: the management was confident visitors would spend more on food on drinks that were served throughout the evening.

The building itself dates back to 1902 and originally served as the offices of a newspaper called “La Métropole”. It is a nice example of neo-renaissance building, one of the many styles that were popular in the late 19th and early 20th century in Flanders. It is a style that imitates the way houses were built in the 16th century, incorporating modern techniques. The result usually is much more sober than the eclectic styles and neo-baroque styles that were also popular in the same era.

The architect responsible for the original building is also responsible for the eclectic building on the corner of Leysstraat and Teniersplaats, which practically borders the AB building. A clearer examples of the differences between both styles is hard to find. When the offices were turned into a theater, this was done with respect for the facade and fortunately, when the theater was turned into a shop, the interior has also been respected. So be sure to have a look at this historical place that many older Antwerp people still think of with a lot of melancholy.

Old and new go hand in hand

The Hoogstraat is a very lively shopping street where you will not find any of the international brands, but only local shops, eat houses and bars. Jacques Jordaens, one of the great baroque painters of the city was born here in the house which now bears the number 13, right next to one of the entrances to the Vlaaikensgang, a relict of sixteenth century Antwerp.

One of the antique shops in the Kloosterstraat

One of the eldest buildings in the Hoogstraat is situated right next to St-Jansvliet. It is the Saint-Julian’s Hospital or guesthouse. Pilgrims on their way to Compostella could stay there overnight and in fact, they still can, although the guest house is now situated on St-Jansvliet and offers a bit more comfort than the old building. The old chapel of the guesthouse today houses the Black Panther, one of the most prestigious art galleries in town presenting a wide range of contemporary artists from home and abroad.

And while you’re at it, if you continue walking south, you enter the Kloosterstraat. Here, for something like half a mile, you will find a lot of antique and vintage shops, one next to the other, with of course a coffe house, restaurant or bar in between.

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