The St. Willibrord at Kloosterburen: Waterstaat (1842) and Neo-gothic (1868/1869)

by Author: Auke van der Woud (1947-)
cultureel maandblad,
ISSN 0011-2941
vol. 16 (1974-1975), pp. 57-74;
provided by: Koos Halsema
translated by John Ketelaars

The decision to write this article came with the finding of a manuscript that contained the story of the building of the Neogothic St. Willibrord church at Kloosterburen, written by the rector who built it, Antonius Kerkhof. In his journal he described the preparation, the decision to build, the financing, the discussions with the architect P.I.H. Cuypers (1867/1868) and his superiors. At the end he reported how and when the building came about. The church, which up until then had served the parish well enough and in good condition, a real waterstand church, was gradually becoming too small. Both churches may possibly occupy an interesting place in the history of architecture, seen from an important point of view. The first, build in 1842, because it is representative of a large number of churches build in these decades under the Waterstaat. The second (1868/1869) because it is a reasonably good example of the application of Cuyper’s Neogothic form to a small Groninger village and also because it is unique in the context of Cuyper’s still extant total work.

The Waterstaat.

The Waterstaat style is a vague term filled with preconceptions. It is used often but never defined. A waterstaat church is a church build in the second quarter of the last century overseen by the government’s waterstaat officials. There are many of them and they take on many diverse forms. From a traditional point of view the following all belong to the same style: Such an imposing building as the St. Antonius of Padua; the Moses and Aaron church located at the Waterloo plaza in Amsterdam, 1841, architect F.f.Suyst; the in comparison quite ugly Willibrord church of Kloosterburen Under these circumstances, because of a lack of unity in character and observable details, it is impossible to give a useful meaning to the term waterstaat church. There is otherwise no problem designating these churches so, since there is no doubt that the waterstaat officials were overseeing the building of these churches. The name has even here not much meaning, since the role of these officials varied. The influence of this government agency over the 19th century architecture was so great, that it is appropriate to mention the organization and its work, although it can only be a rough sketch in this article. Like many other governmental services, the waterstaat originated out of the French period. Before this, see and river dikes, canals and locks, bridges and roads, were the responsibility of local agencies. After a series of reorganizations of structure and responsibilities of this service, there was in 1819 a resolution that became important for this agency, and that stayed in force until the middle of the century. The department of the Waterstaat became part of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (except for a short interruption in 1830/1831) with control in the hands of an inspector-general, four inspectors, a group of chief engineers and other engineers. The control consisted of only those endeavors of general concern that were financed from the general purse, in order to execute all works of general concern. This included therefore also all public buildings. In the provinces the chief engineers, who in turn were responsible to the Staatsraad Governor of the King and the States, led the Waterstaat (but the Hague appointed them). The chief engineers were assisted by a number of supervisors, and they took charge a great variety of tasks. They became responsible for ports, indiking, factories, prisons, foundations, floods, roads, mills, public housing, toll-buildings and schools. In 1824 they also became overseers of the building of churches One cannot simply characterize this influence on the building of the churches as pure paternalism or centralism. Through causes that are not yet fully understood, the skill and level of experience of the Dutch builders were at an all time low, whether they were architect or construction engineer. The Waterstaat started at the time to function as an organization that would control and occasionally would correct the drawing, specifications and estimates of the architects and builders, and of those who called themselves architects and builders. It is clear from the notes and corrections found in the provincial archives of the waterstaat, that this was not a case of bureaucratic meddling. There is advice for placing a window in a different place for improved lighting. There is for example a criticism on a construction that is too light, doors that are too small, forgetting a walkway above the ceiling for eventual repair to the roof. When a hesitant church organization ask for this, the Waterstaat solicits estimates and for the church in Kloosterburen even an advertisement for drawing up a design. The government officials considered the supervision of building essential. This was not just to make sure that all conditions were satisfied, but especially in those cases, where the parish or municipality had asked the State (i.e. the king) to subsidize the new building. Asking for subsidies was done often by the rural municipalities in this age of weak economy and stagnation. In those instances one had to be certain that the funds were not squandered, and not used for other purposes. It goes without saying, that the influence of the Waterstaat was much greater when building a subsidized church then one that was not subsidized, and greater also for a church that was designed by someone with little talent than for a church designed by an experienced and capable architect. Occasionally the Waterstaat was entirely responsible for the design and building of the church in Groningen, namely, when the church elders were not able to find a trustworthy and capable architect. The education of the engineers of the Waterstaat became a state concern around the same time that the Waterstaat became a national institution, in 1805, in the General Theoretical and Practical School for Artillery, Engineering and Waterstaat at Amersfoort. In 1806 this school was moved to the Hague, abolished in 1810, and opened again in Delft in 1814. The education of the aspiring engineers of the Waterstaat were combined with that of the officers of the Royal Academy and moved to Breda in 1828. The education of the engineers was for the first time separated from the military training in 1842, in Delft , under the name of the Royal Delfts Academy. It was renamed in 1868 to the Polytechnical School and still later, in 1905 to the current T. H. The details of the architectural education given to the engineers is unknown. Research would be able to add important information to our knowledge of the early 19th century architecture. It would at the very least being able to clarify the more obvious similarities that exist between various Waterstaat churches in the various parts of our land. The Waterstaat did not supervise the building of new Catholic churches exclusively, although that is a common misconception. The Service worked for all religious denominations, for the procedure was identical for Protestant, Catholic and Jewish organizations: Permission must be obtained from the Ministry of Worship for the purchase of land and for the building of a church, according to an accompanying estimate, drawing, specification and financial plan. (If there was to be a request for a subsidy, then that had to be directed to the King). This Ministry sent the architectural data to the provincial chief engineer, through the King’s governor. The chief engineer passed this data for inspection to one of the supervisors (in Groningen during the 1840’s there were ten of them). The inspection was turned into a report, and was scrutinized by the chief engineer, and the data was then send back through the different levels and was instrumental in determining if permission was to follow. Since the archives of the chief engineer contains all this correspondence (with the exception of the internal exchange of letters in the Hague) the Waterstaat archives offer a rich source of data for the history of architecture and the local church.

The First St. Willibrord Church of Kloosterburen.

Ever since the Reformation, the parish Den Hoorn was the only one in the Marne region, so that the Catholics of Kloosterburen had to make the trip to the church of Den Hoorn for their religious services, through wind and through rain. The road condition was very poor, especially during the winter, and when the number of Catholics in Kloosterburen began to grow, at the start of the 19th century, plans were made to found their own church and their own parish. In December 1838 a commission of representatives from the Catholics in Kloosterburen sent a request to the director-general of affairs for the Roman Catholic Worship to build a church and rectory according to the accompanying drawings, specifications and estimate (9,948 guilders). Only in March 1840 did the governor of the province of Groningen request the chief engineer A.C. Kros to examine the building plans. He passed on the plans to the supervisor W. I. Hasselbachs. These original building plans are dated 24 December 1838 and signed by G. Dusseldorp. The accompanying drawings are lost. Hasselbachs’ notes with suggestions for improvements was ready in August. With a few changes from the chief, the plan was presented to the building commission of Kloosterburen, who approved them. In March of the following year, 1841, the governor requested from Kros to make the specifications and estimates to reflect the improved version. With these plans, ready in August, the church was built. They bear the signature of chief engineer Kros, but they are the work of Hasselbachs.

Bids for the work were solicited on 25 Feb 1842. On 2 May the building started and within two month the church and rectory were completed. The inauguration took place on 27 September and the first rector of the new parish of Kloosterburen was named in January 1843. The building cost 14,000 guilders and received a subsidy of 4000 guilders. While it was being build, the church was inspected daily by the master carpenter from the neighboring village of Wehe, H.P. Noordhoek. Hasselbachs was charged with the responsibility to inspect the building’s progress (from time to time). This did not need to be very often, for a colleague of his who in 1843 supervised the building of the new Reformed church in Kloosterburen , only showed up seven times. According to the drawings (fig. 1 and 2) the church was an extremely simple rectangular church. The simplicity was forced on the building by the tight finances of that period, which considered even the frugal plans of Kloosterburen too luxurious. The rectory was build against the sanctuary, probably to conserve building material and fuel. This way of building was not unusual. For example, also in the Waterstaat churches of Zuidhorn, Assen and Sappemeer was the rectory brought under the same roof as the church. The total length of the whole was a good 30 meters (the church was 23.2 meters and the rectory 7.2 long). It was 10 meters wide and a good 11 meters to the tip of the roof. The rectangular room had a platform above the entrance and was covered with a wooden ceiling. The outside looks more like a barn than a church, even though the 9 cast iron pointed arches windows and the cross on the roof clearly indicated the function of the structure. The presence of the pointed arches windows can not be separated from the origin of the Neogothicism in the Netherlands. It was part of the new style that at the end of some thirty years was already applied here, although it is clear from the design drawings of the St. Willibrord, that this is not a Neogothic church. The pointed arches are not sufficient indicators. The presence of the pointed arches windows are not so much an indication of a romantic interest in the Middle Ages as an expression of conservatism (or a feeling for tradition): Hardly anyone realized that the old village churches were medieval. Everyone was of the opinion that the pointed arches symbolized a religious use of the building. And this was not just true for Catholics. The Reformed church of Kloosterburen also has the same pointed arches windows

One other thing about the St. Willibrord was consistent with the tradition from the Middle Ages: It was oriented, i.e. with the sanctuary pointed to the east. That was not forced through circumstance: There was plenty of room around the church. The fact that the main entrance did not point to the main road alone, was a sure indicator that the orientation was important and done on purpose. It means, that contrary to Alberdingk Thijm’s statement, the knowledge of this meaningful medieval tradition was not lost in this very isolated rural community. The church of the station of Sappemeer, founded in 1761 was also oriented.

The Second St. Willibrord Church.

Twenty-five years later, in 1867 the parish had grown so much that the little church had become too small. It was probably also considered too humble. The social and liturgical development of Dutch Catholiscism demanded higher expectations in the building and furnishing of the churches. What happened from 1867 to 1869, after his parishioners told him that they wanted a new church, is the story of father A. kerkhof, the pastor, who wrote: The current church was a real Waterstaat church, sturdy, build with good quality stone and mortar. However it had a wooden ceiling, painted blue and covered with tiles and at the time a bit small. In the winter, when it was freezing, the ceiling began to drip from the heat of furnaces and people, so that we sometimes had to bring our umbrellas. Except above the altar, where the ceiling planks were covered with straw. (In my time it began only to drip only when holy mass was ended). I did not start the building of a new church, but the parish elders themselves began to talk about the fact, that we had to have a new church, because this one is too small. Oh, people, that may be true, but for me that is not necessary. No one is in the way. But you must understand: If I must build a new church, than we will build a church, and that will cost money and I don’t have that. (There was still a debt of ƒ 5,000 on the old church that had to be paid off first). I don’t know if you have money for that. — Yes, if there were enough money. If that were true, then I would do my best. At any rate, we made a start. I talked to architect Cuypers from Amsterdam, who then was busy with the rectory in Groningen, and who I knew from the time he build the church in Ulft. He came to Kloosterburen, and promised to draw up a plan. I wrote to His Excellency, Z.D.H. J. Zwijsen, archbishop of Utrecht, about my plan to build a new church in Kloosterburen. The Monsignor approved this and referred me to architect Wennekers, who had built other churches in the north. I wrote back to ask, if the referral was a command or only an proposal, since I had been negotiating with Cuypers. The Monsignor replied: If you have made an arrangement with architect Cuypers, that is fine. Take care however, that you don’t build above the ability of the parish to pay, because architect Cuypers is an expensive builder and when bidding start, people tend to be disappointed, because the estimate was to low and the real cost is typically far above the original estimate. Meanwhile I informed the parish of the plans to build a new church. (Kerkhof writes, that a subscription list raised 27,000 guilders). I wrote to Cuypers, to tell him that he could go ahead. He drew up a plan with specifications, that still had to be looked at and approved by the state’s architects. They made a few observations about the structure, which I forwarded to Cuypers, who dealt with them directly. I asked Cuypers to make a gross estimate, and told him about what monsignor the archbishop had written. Cuypers answered: Tell the monsignor that I stand behind the estimate, and as it turns out that no one will do the work for that amount, than the parish of Kloosterburen can pick anyone reasonable to build the church according to the specifications and the drawings, so that it will be properly build. And if the parish can save money by buying material from someone cheaper, than that will be an advantage to the church. Whatever expense there is above the original estimate, I will pay out of my own pocket, so that in no way will the cost be higher than the estimate. The estimate was ƒ50,000; ƒ30,000 for the church and ƒ20,000 for the 8 meter tower. (The tower was shortened to 7 meters, if I am not mistaken). I wrote the result with Cuyper’s answer to the archbishop, upon which I received a hearty go-ahead. Now there was a problem with the shape of the ground. The old church was build on the Singel, along the road. Since now the new church was to have a new direction, with the tower pointed to the road, the ground was either too small or too short, so that I had to buy land on the other side of the canal. (here follows the details of the buy.) Because of the visit of the state architects, the business took a long time, and only in May could the bidding start by the builders. By November the work had to be covered by a roof, and finished to such an extend, that the church could be used if necessary. On 5 May the bidding took place. There were five competitors, of which the highest estimate was ƒ72,000 and the lowest ƒ55,000. Yes, Mr. Cuypers, what now? Answer: I keep my word. Well, we too. Cuypers brought a good supervisor; Mr. J.J. van Langelaar from Amsterdam, one of his most capable supervisors. On the advice of Cuypers, the parish charged this Van Langelaar with the execution of the work. He did an excellent job. It is true that he is protestant, Cuypers said, but you can trust his sense of fairness. (The work was not given to a contractor. They decided to build it themselves) Now to work. An add in the paper requesting an estimate for the cost of bricks, and the various samples. Several samples came, with the proposed cost. Because we needed the bricks quickly, we unloaded a shipload of samples from several of the bidders, and so we soon had enough bricks to start. Here I received a letter from one of the businessmen, where he wanted me to know that this way of behaving was a jew trick. True enough. (but we were saved). The church was to be build right through the old church, so we had to build a temporary church on the newly bought ground. On Sunday I announced to the parish that the next day there would be a high mass, the last high mass of in this church, and right afterwards we began to break down the church and build from its material the temporary church, which in these eight days had to be made ready for the following Sunday. The parishioners were therefore politely requested to make sure that there would be enough people present to help me. The church was full of people that Monday, and they stayed afterwards for the work. A long ladder was placed against the church and I myself climbed to the top and removed the first tiles from the roof, In this way we passed them from hand to hand to the location of the temporary church. Everyone enjoyed themselves and things moved quickly. The sides of the temporary church were build with the wood from the roof, and it is true, I could hold the religious services the following Sunday in the temporary church. Now break down the walls. Mason, carpenter, smith, everybody came. They had fun. On my friendly request enough people came with the necessary tools to chisel the bricks. Sixty thousand bricks were cleaned and used for the foundation of the new church. The grounds were cleared and in the meantime the new bricks had arrived, unloaded in Molenrij and carried by the farmers to their destination. All the labor and carrying was performed by and large by the parishioners themselves. On the 5th of June they started on the foundations and halfway through November I could perform religious services in the new church. I myself worked too, lost many drops of sweat to the ground, encouraged people and made sure the tempo never slacked. The natural stone was brought uncut to the terrain and there cut to size. From mid December to mid January no work was done. After that the job was taken up again and finished. Building like that under one’s own control was for me a big responsibility: I had to discuss all details with the supervisor, Van Langelaar, explain everything, make deals and yes, make sure on Saturdays that I had enough money to pay the workers. My cash bank was the merchant, the storekeeper, the salesman. Whenever I was short of money (because I paid as much as possible in cash, at 2% discount), then I came begging, and borrowed (without interest, of course). I must say, they have always been a constant support. In the final analysis, after careful figuring, we were still (four thousand guilders) under the estimate. The final cost was certainly due in large measure to the tact and management of Mr. Van Langelaar. In the summer of 1869 the new St. Wilibrord was completed. In the days, when religious opposition was harder and sharper, both Catholics and non-Catholics alike had to get used to the fact, that the old tower of the Reformed church no longer dominated the village skyline. The new church was after the unsightly barnlike structure a manifestation of a parish that was no longer poor, that had a greater sense of self worth, and that had pride in its religion. [here follows a detailed description of the church in jargon that I feel unsure of. –John]When we compare the interior with the exterior, we are amazed that even though the church on the outside looks like a pseudo-basilica (a middle aisle with lower side isles without light coming in from the top), from the inside it looks totally like a regular basilica.: the nave is lit by the windows from the middle aisle. This very remarkable and rare middle form of a basilica and a pseudo basilica is possibly the result of the limited financial reach of the architect: this church was cheaper than a basilica and lighter and roomier than a pseudo basilica. The result is however a compromise that is as unexpected as it is unusual in the total work of Cuypers, who in his entire career avoided the “phony” in building techniques: the illusionary architecture, where the form suggested by the outside did not correspond to the internal structure, just as here. The Neogothic theory of Cuypers in contrast dictated, that the exterior must not be different than the interior, and that the building forms of the interior must flow from the exterior. It would have seemed easier for Cuypers to break with his principles seeing that Kloosterburen was so far removed from the Center of the land and therefore from influential critics. There is only one other example of illusionary architecture in Cuyper’s work, but there is no example more important than the one at Kloosterburen. Cuypers has succeeded in adapting the pretty little church to its environment: In its simplicity it is a typical village church. Typical, because Cuypers was clearly inspired by the outlines and forms of the Groninger and Friesian medieval village churches. This is definitely not the case with the St. Vitus church at Blauwhuis in Friesland, that was build at about the same time. St. Vitus is an even greater church in a village of about the same size that has some details in common with St. Willibrord. Both churches are the first two, build by Cuypers in the north of the land and, incidentally, the first two representatives of the phase in the Dutch neogothicism that from the technical and ideal point of view was incredibly important for the development of the architecture. The rector of Kloosterburen would not have been be conscious of its importance. But (you understand of course, that if I must build a church, than we definitely build a church) he must have been aware of the prestige of his enterprise, having the support of an architect who had become famous in the entire land, while the Catholics elsewhere in the province had to put up with their waterstaat churches. ?????????A van der Woud.