Heritage of the Week | Tribute to a public housing provider

On June 4, it is 93 years since the Mayor Tellegen monument in Diamantbuurt was unveiled. With its impressive dimensions in an important urban planning position, it is a structure that is hard to ignore. One would also rather expect the sarcophagus-like shape and funeral symbolism at the performances in a cemetery. Reason to take a closer look at this highly deserved and respected mayor’s person and the background to his unique memorial.

Official and mayor

Jan Willem Cornelis Tellegen (1859-1921) is considered one of the best mayors Amsterdam has had in modern times. Born in Groningen as the son of a professor of constitutional and international law and a baroness, he attended the local HBS. In 1882 he received his diploma in civil engineering from the Polytechnic School in Delft, after which he got employment in the construction of railways in the north and east of the country. In 1887 he became supervisor of municipal works in Arnhem, where he quickly became director. In the 11 years he was appointed here, Tellegen proved to be extremely crucial in slum clearance, restoration and urban expansion. His interest in social and economic problems drove him politically in the direction of the Liberal Democratic League, of which he became a member when it was founded in 1901. That same year, Tellegen, who had now built up a national reputation, was appointed director of the new municipal construction and housing supervision department in Amsterdam. As a declared opponent of the indefensible revolutionary construction in the expansion districts of the nineteenth century, he vigorously campaigned for the realization of the capital’s new building law, which also included a ban on the construction of the hated alcove houses. In addition, he strictly enforced the declaration of uninhabitable status of slums. On March 15, 1915, Tellegen was appointed mayor of Amsterdam. How unusual such a career move was for a senior official at the time shows that one of the councilors immediately resigned because he did not want to meet during a previous subordinate presidency.

ir. JWC Tellegen. † Photo: Amsterdam City Archives image bank (5293FO004986).

Tellegen’s mayoralty was marked by the First World War, which among other things led to food shortages in Amsterdam. The mayor, with his tactful attitude, was able to prevent further escalation of the potato uprising of 1917, which was bloodily suppressed by the army. After the war, he worked closely with the socialist councilor for housing FM Wibaut (1859-1936), a personal friend with whom he addressed the many issues in the field of social housing. As an advocate of high-quality and aesthetically high-quality architecture, Tellegen gained a reputation as a ‘housing association teacher’ and patron of progressive architects and visual artists. The last major task he performed as administrator was the annexation of a whole series of neighboring municipalities to Amsterdam. In early 1921, Tellegen was reappointed mayor, but on April 16 came the unexpected news of his death.

Chris van der Hoef in 1923 in his studio working on the monument to the Mayor of Amsterdam JWC Tellegen.  † Photo: Algemeen Handelsblad 27 November 1923, via Wikimedia Commons.Chris van der Hoef in 1923 in his studio working on the monument to the Mayor of Amsterdam JWC Tellegen. † Photo: Algemeen Handelsblad 27 November 1923, via Wikimedia Commons.

Japanese wisteria

The day after Tellegen’s death, plans arose in Amsterdam for a lasting memory in the form of a monument. The Tellegen Committee of the Federation of Amsterdam Housing Associations, created especially for this purpose, organized a design competition, which was won by the Amsterdam sculptor CJ (Chris) van der Hoef (1875-1933). On April 22, 1923, the model was festively presented in the Stedelijk Museum’s garden room, in the presence of the family and representatives of the municipal council, various municipal services and housing associations, and the future location announced. The monument, which measures 8.3 by 3 meters, will be located on the south-facing rear of the Coöperatiehof reading room, which has not yet been built.The monument will be located on the south-facing rear of the Coöperatiehof reading room, which has not yet been built.  † Photo: Marcel Mulder via Wikimedia Commons.The monument will be located on the south-facing rear of the Coöperatiehof reading room, which has not yet been built. † Photo: Marcel Mulder via Wikimedia Commons.

This was an important urban location opposite the rolling corner buildings of the newly completed residential complex De Dageraad. Located on the line of sight to PL Takstraat, the lead-clad bell tower of the reading room, which rises above the monument, would direct visitors’ gaze to the place from afar. The architects of the surrounding neighborhood, PL Kramer and M. de Klerk, also provided the architectural framework for the Tellegen monument, a slightly curved glossy brick wall, cropped at the top with red tiles. As the finishing touch, a Japanese wisteria would be carried around the sculpture, whose flowers would give the monument a vibrant color accent every spring. Or as Piet Kramer put it in 1926: ‘So every year there will be a Tellegen moment.‘The plant, which has now reached full maturity, can still be seen in pictures from 1958.

The Tellegen monument in 1958, with wisteria.  † Photo: MA Knopper, Amsterdam City Archives image bank (010122033682).The Tellegen monument in 1958, with wisteria. † Photo: MA Knopper, Amsterdam City Archives image bank (010122033682).

Apotheosis of a public housing provider

It was not until 1929 that the Tellegen monument was completed. The reason lay in the repeated postponement of the construction of Kramer’s reading room at the Coöperatiehof. The focal point of the memorial is a hefty plaque made of picrite, a gray-green, basalt-like volcanic stone depicting Tellegen’s profile portrait. The bust is surrounded by allegorical representations and epigraphic texts in immersed relief, carved in fine white sandstone. The sculpture was made by the Amsterdam company LM van Tetterode. The text above and on each page of Tellegen’s portrait reads: ‘MAYOR TELLEGEN 1859-1921 – FOUNDED IN 1924 BY AMSTERDAMSCHE BOLIGFORENERER – IN GRATEFULNESS FOR THE WORK CARRIED OUT IN THE INTEREST OF PUBLIC HOUSING† Tellegen’s image is literally worshiped by 2 stylized female figures that evoke memories of the visual traditions of both ancient Egypt and Indonesia. The motif of a portrait of a deceased carried by female figures goes back to the symbolic representations on Roman sarcophagi of apotheosis, the inclusion of mortals among the gods. The floating doves and stars, below and above the ends, respectively, also refer to an ascent to the sky. Unexplained remains the meaning of the hand above the right, which seems to emerge from a cloud and rest on stylized waves or flames. Far more earthly and unambiguous is the reference to Tellegen’s role as public housing provider at the foot of the monument, where a semicircle of stylized sandstone houses with saddle roofs can be seen. On the model from 1923, these still have window and door openings.

Model of the monument.  † Source: Eigen Haard 49 (1923), p. 296.Model of the monument. † Source: Eigen Haard 49 (1923), p. 296.

Some of the limestone reliefs at the Tellegen monument.  † Photos: Han van Gool, Monuments and Archeology, 2008.Some of the limestone reliefs at the Tellegen monument. † Photos: Han van Gool, Monuments and Archeology, 2008.

As recently as 1928, the Art Office in Amsterdam municipality had given the sculptor HJ (Driekus) Jansen van Galen (1871-1949) the task of adding 6 limestone reliefs to the design, which expressed Tellegen’s virtues as an instructor. The 4 faces represent courage, consultation, faithfulness and politics, respectively. These are flanked by slightly larger reliefs, each showing a woman with a child and a building, which undoubtedly again indicates Tellegen’s role as a general housing provider. The reliefs were placed in the upper zone of the monument’s brick background. Finally, on June 4, 1929, the unveiling of the memorial took place by Tellegen’s widow, Mrs. AJJ Tellegen-Fock. The speakers included the President of the Federation of Amsterdam Housing Association HAJ van Bronkhorst and the Councilor for Public Housing W. Boissevain.

Unveiling of monument to JWC Tellegen (1859-1921) in the Coöperatiehof by Mrs AJJ van Tellegen-Fock.  † Photo: Vereenigde Fotobureaux NV, Amsterdam City Archives image bank (OSIM00006003345).Unveiling of monument to JWC Tellegen (1859-1921) in the Coöperatiehof by Mrs AJJ van Tellegen-Fock. † Photo: Vereenigde Fotobureaux NV, Amsterdam City Archives image bank (OSIM00006003345).

Heritage of the Week

Each week, the Heritage of the Week section focuses on a particular archaeological find, site, object, monumental building or historic site in the city. Via the website amsterdam.nl/erfgoed, Twitter @ arv020 and Facebook Monuments and Archeology, the cultural heritage experts in Monuments and Archeology share the city’s heritage with Amsterdamers and other interested parties.

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