St Petersburg & Russia

Tsar Peter’s House

Today, the most famous house in which Peter the Great stayed in the Netherlands is the oldest house in Zaanstreek - and one of the best preserved examples of Dutch timber architecture. The survival of the house, built originally in 1632, is due to the local innkeeper Jan Bulsing, who saved it from demolition in the late 18th century.

King Willem I bought the house in 1818 as a gift for his son’s Russian wife, Anna Pavlovna, Tsar Nicholas I’s sister, who had recently given birth. She financed the first protective brick structure in 1823. Her son, Prince Hendrik subsequently commissioned an extra wooden surrounding house. In 1886, Willem III gave the house to Tsar Alexander III, who had supports added and a brick foundation. The last Russian tsar, Nicholas II, commissioned architect G.B. Salm of Amsterdam in 1895 to devise a new brick roof based on the Russian Orthodox architectural style. In 1948, the Soviet Union returned the house to the Dutch government.

“But is it true that they no longer rent out that house in which Tsar Peter used to live in Saerdam, but that it’s standing there empty?”

“Well of course,” said Auntie.

“My goodness! How can a person be so contrary to their own welfare?” he cried out in surprise, “not earning any money from a house!”

“Well you would be right,” said Auntie, “but those people in Saerdam are right too; since they earn more from showing the house than from getting rent for it.”

Jacob van Lennep, De lotgevallen van Ferdinand Huijck (The Fortunes of Ferdinand Huijck), 1840.

Eminent visitors

In the course of the 18th century, the house developed into a tourist attraction. The great and the good honoured the rundown hovel with a visit: Napoleon in 1811 and more recently, Russian leaders Gorbachev and Putin, as well as Prince Willem Alexander. The house is full of graffiti written by famous and less-famous visitors. For example, apart from a large N beside the fireplace, Napoleon left a brief message about Peter the Great, whom he admired enormously: 'Nothing was too humble for the big man'.

Bow in this humble hut, surrounded by God’s angels,

Bow your head in silent respect, great prince,

This was the cradle of your empire, it once contained the seed,

That gave to Russia its greatness.

A free rendering of Jacob van Lennep’s translation of the verse that Russian poet Zhukovski dedicated to the house in Zaandam for prince and later emperor Alexander II (1839).

Small

The house certainly is small. It has only two rooms and a tiny kitchen, which gives it the air of a ship’s cabin. Due to the many floods that have inundated the region, almost all the doors and windows are crooked. Despite the house’s size, Tsar Peter’s adventures in Holland have taken on mythical proportions. The house fits the image of the tsar perfectly, the way the Russians like to see him: a great man, for whom nothing was too humble. Many Russians make the pilgrimage to Zaandam. Although it has a counterpart much nearer home: St Petersburg has its own Tsar Peter House.

Counterpart

In 1703, Peter the Great had a temporary timber shack built on the north bank of the Neva. It covered hardly more than 60 square metres, and contained a living room, bedroom and study. The style combined traditional Russian and Dutch timber architecture. It was here that Peter stayed when he was in St Petersburg to coordinate work in the city - his official residence was still in Moscow at the time. The tsar used the house until 1708. Then in 1711, he had it moved as a symbol of humility to its present location, near Peter and Paul Fortress. In 1723, a red brick protective cover was built around the wooden Domik Petra I, like its counterpart in Zaandam. The house is still open for visitors: it was the first museum to reopen after the Siege of Leningrad. It has an original Dutch stove and various personal effects of the tsar - just as they were three centuries ago.

Small and Dutch

Though he was a tall man, Tsar Peter the Great preferred modest houses. The Dutch influence seems to have been pervasive. A contemporary remarked that the first Winter Palace that he built in St Petersburg also contained ‘a small house in Dutch style’. We no longer know its dimensions, so we shall have to trust his word. The small palace of Mon Plaisir at Peterhof, the tsar’s summer residence, was built with bare brick walls, windows with small lozenge-shaped panes, black-and-white checkered floors and marine paintings on the walls. The Romanovs used to call it their Dutch house.

Opening hours

Daily 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.
Closed on 25 December 2014 and 27 April 2015
Open on 1 January 11 a.m.- 5 p.m.

© State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The Hermitage Amsterdam is located on Amstel 51, Amsterdam

Photo Janiek Dam

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