HEY, YELLS SOMEONE FROM THE STREET. I look up from bed, hungover and naked. It is 9 a.m. Hey, says the voice again. It’s a woman’s voice. I sit up and peek through the blinds. She is at the foot of the open drawbridge, on a bicycle, a child rides on the back. Both look at me angrily. Through the window, I try to mouth that I am not actually the bridgemaster. I am just a man who rented his control room for the night. I can’t lower the bridge. I am sure they don’t believe me.
I have been able to rent that room, by the way, because most of the 60-plus drawbridges over Amsterdam’s canals are no longer controlled by bridgemasters, but remotely by government functionaries in some dank and joyless nerve center south of the city. Thus have many of the bridge houses, as they are known, been decommissioned and turned into overnight accommodations by the SWEETS hotel group. Around town, there are 28 suites like this—one-room aeries hovering over the canals—and they have instantly taken their place among the coolest hotel rooms in the city, no small feat in a city full of cool hotel rooms. The experience they provide is incomparable, as long as you 1) remember that many Dutch will still think you control the bridge, so therefore 2) make sure you wear clothes to bed.
No two of the retrofitted spaces are alike. One sits on the Amstel River and dates to 1673, another from 2009 hovers over the artificial islands of IJburg. By and large, bridge houses are quite small and far from lavish. During renovations, SWEETS carefully maintained certain details (like the old control panels, with their dials and buttons) but otherwise gutted the rooms, adding showers and bathrooms—bridgemasters were afforded neither luxury—and of course a queen-size bed, which takes up most of the floor space. (Needless to say, each suite accommodates just two travelers.) Small and admittedly somewhat tight with luggage, the control rooms boast views that other hotels can only dream of (e.g., windows on three sides) and are perfect home bases for your garden variety Amsterdam tourist (e.g., many are right in the center of town).
I stayed in two of these fine structures during a recent trip to the city. The first, a modernist brown tiled box from 2007, sat adjacent to the Zeilstraatbrug, a stone’s throw from Vondel Park, while the second, from 1960, hovered over a busy thoroughfare near Amsterdam Centraal, the main train station. As it was January and the weather bitterly cold, rain pelted the windows of my little rooms for hours, which only made the experience of sitting and watching the passing spectacle more enchanting. Fog rolled in and out, intrepid cyclists spun down slick streets, and as I gazed out at rain-soaked rivers and canals, I gained a new appreciation for the Dutch and their miracle achievement of reclaiming land from the sea.
Not many hotels boast an artistic director, but the SWEETS folks are not your average hoteliers. “This project was extremely impractical,” admits Suzanne Oxenaar, the owner of that title. “Each house is completely different. You have no idea how much time we spent recovering them. In every case, we had to say, what is this house giving in terms of light? In terms of architecture? What does this need to get a life?”
In her own previous life, Oxenaar commissioned art for site-specific spaces, including prisons, psychiatric hospitals and orphanages. From there, it was just a short leap to the idea that hotels can and should do more than merely provide places for patrons to sleep. Indeed, her first project was something called the Lloyd Hotel & Cultural Embassy, which regularly enlisted its guests—many of them artists and writers—to give talks in the lobby on their works and passions. Previous to the bridge houses, Oxenaar and her business partners also developed Hotel The Exchange on Amsterdam’s busy Damrak St. As with the bridge houses, all of that property’s 61 rooms are unique, each having been awarded to a different young Dutch fashion designer to create a theme and décor. (In one, a giant dress complete with a billowy bustle hangs like a canopy suspended over the bed, although the impression—at least while in that bed—is of looking up a woman’s dress.)
“We have a very special name in the city,” says Oxenaar. “We are seen as cultural entrepreneurs—not as, let’s say, extremely money-driven.” And so, a few years back, when the city was in the midst of decommissioning bridge houses, SWEETS was the natural choice to reimagine them. There was no small amount of controversy over the move, not least because the men and women who had the daily task of raising and lowering 28 bridges lost their jobs. But something even more important was lost, says Oxenaar: the important contribution that bridge operators played in their communities.
“To be very honest, the bridge-watchers were the concierges of the city,” she says. “I visited all these guys when they were still working. They knew everything that was going on in their neighborhoods. By taking that away, they took away social connection, communication. The bridgemaster could open a window and scream hello, or warn you of danger. Now when you do something wrong, you just hear this voice from the south of Amsterdam come out of nowhere yelling ‘Stop!’”
Given that, it’s no wonder that so many folks on the street waved to me, shouted hi, and in one case at least, pleaded with outstretched arms.
I’m sorry, I don’t control this thing, I gestured, something very difficult to explain in pantomime. The elderly woman continued her pleading for another long minute, even as I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders exaggeratedly. In the end I capitulated, walking over to the defunct control panel to turn a few dials and push a few buttons, just to get the woman off my case. Just at that moment, wouldn’t you know it, the bridge began to lower.
“Dank je,” she said with a sigh before giving me her own exaggerated head-shake.
Each SWEETS bridge house has its own pricing structure, and rates start at around $178 a night. Visit sweets.amsterdam for further information. Iamsterdam, the city’s peerless tourism and information site, contains an enormous amount of material on the metropolis, lesser known sights and more. Even better is the Iamsterdam City Card, which allows free entrance to more than 70 Amsterdam museums and attractions—plus a cruise down one of the canals—and can be purchased in one- to five-day increments. It is absolutely indispensable.