It all started in 1782, when Johannes van Nelle and his wife Hendrica opened a coffee, tea and tobacco shop, located on the Leuhaven in Rotterdam center. After Johannes van Nelle died in 1811, his widow continued the business alone, but died two years later. Their son, Johannes Jr. and his brother-in-law Abraham Goedkoop continued the company under the name ‘De Erven de Wed. J. van Nelle’. After the death of Johannes van Nelle Jr., Van der Leeuw family took a stake in the company in 1837. From 1845, Van Nelle was wholly owned by the Van der Leeuw family.
The company grew rapidly. By the 19th century, there was a need for a new factory space. After a long search, the Van Nelle company bought a plot of land on Spaanse Polder (translation: Spanish Polder), by the canal Schie, in 1916. A visible location where water, railways, future road network and the working-class neighborhood of Spangen came together.
The visionary director and co-owner, Kees van der Leeuw, commissioned the construction of this new factory in 1923. It was to be constructed according to the style “Het Nieuwe Bouwen” (translation: The New Building), a school of Dutch modernist architecture that became popular across the country after the First World War. The Van Nelle factory was built here between 1925 and 1931, designed by architects Jan Brinkman, Leen van der Vlught and Jan Gerko Wiebenga as the civil engineer. A hyper-modern structures made of steel, glass and concrete, featuring large windows and open spaces, was built for functionality and to impress!
From 1931 onwards, the Van Nelle Factory processed and packaged coffee, tea and tobacco and later on chewing gum, cigarettes, instant pudding and rice. In 1989, Van Nelle was taken over by competitor Douwe Egberts. Eventually, Douwe Egberts closed all production facilities in 1998 and this factory site was vacated. Van Nelle was reduced to just a brand name.
The Van Nelle Factory is without a doubt one of the most important monuments in Rotterdam. Part of the 10 Dutch UNESCO World Heritage List, inscribed in 2014. Naturally, a visit is a must!
So, I joined a tour.
The experienced guide from Urban Guides was wonderful! A student of architecture brought us around the compound and inside the restricted main complex, strolling from one end to the other end of the building, passing by offices and ended up on the highest floor where there was a circular room called the ‘bonbon box’. Throughout the entire hour, she enlightened us about the company, history, architecture, interior, products, production and the many interesting anecdotes.
I found out how the building was divided into three parts; first part with 8 floors was the tobacco factory, followed by the 5-storey coffee factory and 3-storey high at the end was the tea factory, all connected by stairwells and sanitary facilities.
The floors were supported by skinny mushroom columns and not bearing walls, where lights or temporary walls can be attached onto each one of them.
The expedition building located across was supposed to be as high as the factory. Due to the economic crisis, it was built lower and the transport air bridges run down for practical reason.
The welfare of the employees was a priority, especially their hygiene. It was a time when hot running water in homes were not common. The males and the females were segregated to use two separate staircases which led them up to the bathrooms for their daily shower, before they were allowed into the work area. The modern shower blocks provided at this factory were an unprecedented luxury for the employees.
These were some of the delightful facts told during my guided tour.
The Van Nelle Factory was conceived as the ‘factory of the future’ with the most modern insights that could respond to changing demand and improve the living standards of its workers. It became the framework of modern industrial architecture icon.
After the departure of the initial company, a major conservation was carried out. The whole complex was restored as closely as possible to its original state. The Van Nelle Factory is now a multi-tenant building for creative companies and events venue.
If you are interested to visit …
I found out the best way to view the Van Nelle Factory is to join Urban Guides guided tour via Chabot Museum. From the website, you will be able to find the schedule, the check the availability and purchase your tickets right away. Ticket is priced at €15.00 for all age 18 years and above, including entry to Chabot Museum. All Museumkaart holders get €3.00 discount.
During the warmer months, free shuttle bus service will be provided between Chabot Museum and Van Nelle Factory. There will be a special English tour conducted once a week at 2pm on Sundays. Otherwise, all guided tour shall be in Dutch language only.
During the colder months like nowadays, there is no shuttle bus. You can take bus number 38 from the Central Station and alight on ‘Beukelsbrug’ to get to the Van Nelle Factory yourself.
While visiting the Chabot Museum, catch the 20 minutes film “Bouwen voor het Licht / Building the Van Nelle Factories” in the basement level. See the Van Nelle before it was today.
Currently, there are 10 properties in the Netherlands and Curaçao inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List. This my 5th out of 10.
Tour Details: https://www.chabotmuseum.nl/rondleiding-van-nellefabriek/(NL)
Tour Details: https://www.chabotmuseum.nl/visit-the-van-nelle-factories-…/ (English)
Address: Van Nelleweg 1. 3044 BC Rotterdam.
Getting There: Take bus number 38 from the Central Station and alight on ‘Beukelsbrug’.