April 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 2
“It makes you want to go there” is our editors’ highest accolade for an article that successfully combines travel and history. We think you’ll want to visit all the places we’ve presented in this issue. I know I do. And when the manuscript on Holland and America arrived on my desk and I first read about Rotterdam’s Hotel New York, I immediately felt I had to see it. Soon after, I did. You’ll catch up with the hotel in Bart Plantenga and Nina Ascoly’s story, but here’s a preview, plus a visual aid on the opposite page: As the authors explain, this former headquarters of the Holland America Line stands in Rotterdam’s harbor as a reminder of the wave of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century immigration. The ships sailed from the Wilhelmina Pier, which still runs along the waterfront in front of the hotel, and their destination was New York. Even as emigration gave way to tourism, transatlantic travel remained lively in Rotterdam, until passengers finally abandoned the seaways for the jet stream. In 1971 the Nieuw Amsterdam departed from the Wilhelmina Pier on the final Holland America crossing.
Built in the 1890s and put up for sale in 1984, the company’s headquarters lay fallow until 1993, when city boosters and private investors joined to create the wonderfully eccentric hotel that I visited one sodden afternoon last September. Despite the murky light and cottony fog that wrapped it, the Hotel New York was alive with purpose and cheer; it had clearly become the place to be in Rotterdam, for a drink, a meal, or a room for the night.
And oh those rooms! A number of them, as can be seen from the example at left, have been fashioned out of the luxurious offices of the directors of the Holland America Line, with original paneled walls, furnishings, and even carpets in place. A hotel representative who showed me around said that former Holland America employees from thirty or forty years ago come by to see the rooms, plaintively saying, “We were never allowed upstairs to the directors’ quarters.”
Some of the public spaces hold old wooden cases crammed with memorabilia- pictures of great liners, luggage labels, and china that was used on the Atlantic run. The bartender pointed to a wall behind him hung with photos of vessels of every kind and grimly said, “All these ships were destroyed by the Germans.” Clearly he was too young to have known this firsthand, but the destruction of Rotterdam, on May 14, 1940, has tragically entered legend. Remarkably, the bombs didn’t hit the nearby ancient port of Delfshaven, embarkation point for the Pilgrims, nor did they seriously damage the headquarters and the historic pier.
If it offered nothing more than a reverent re-creation of the days of ocean-liner glory, the hotel would rate highly with me. But what really gives it an edge is a kind of postmodern wit. For instance, something inspired the designers to scatter here and there and pile like sculpture battered but once-grand suitcases and steamer trunks. It’s as if their ghostly owners had just stepped away but might return in a moment to claim their bags and the elegant kind of travel they represent. Mind you, the hotel engendered all this passion without my ever spending a night there. That, I hope, comes next.