Welcome to Villa Augustus
Story & Photography: Andrew Herygers
Publisher: Dutch, The Magazine
The city of Dordrecht (Pop. 118,450) is located just twenty-five kilometres southeast of Rotterdam in the province of Zuid Holland. The city’s name derives from the word “Thuredrecht” (circa 1200) meaning ’thoroughfare’, which refers to a nexus of waterways where boats were once dragged and pulled by ropes in order to redirect them from one river to another. On the outskirts of Dordrecht’s downtown area and overlooking a flat watery landscape at the intersection of four rivers (Wantij, Noord, Oude Maas, and Beneden Merwede), stands a historic water tower with four octagonal turrets capped with metal spires and a glass observation dome. In 2006, this castle-like water tower was brought back to life when it was transformed from an abandoned public works site into Villa Augustus: a hip new boutique hotel with a thriving café-restaurant. Today, the refurbished and majestic Villa Augustus stands proudly surrounded by idyllic landscaping, fruit orchards, and bountiful gardens. One can only wonder how this remarkable rebirth and transformation occurred.
On January 31, 1881, Dordrecht’s director of public works, J.A. van der Kloes, and consulting engineer A.G. de Geus proposed a public waterworks project to address the city’s water supply issues. The strategic plan included water mains drawing fresh water from the nearby network of rivers and the Biesbosch nature reserve. The river water would be purified in a series of open filter tanks, tested at an on-site laboratory, and treated before public consumption. The final piece of the equation was to build a water tower and reservoir. An impressive thirty-three-meter-tall Neo-Dutch Renaissance tower was constructed and completed by 1882. Unfortunately, a series of unexpected setbacks and delays occurred in the planning and construction phases of the project. At the outset, the clarification ponds could not be dug as deep as they needed to be and were therefore too shallow. Also, the quality of the water was not as clean as expected and construction of the project went well over budget. In 1938, some drastic modifications were then made to the design of the water reservoir in order to increase water pressure. During that process the original spires were removed in order to raise the reservoir. An adjacent building was constructed to house water pumps in 1942. By 1975, the water tower was no longer in operation, though the building was still used for some time as a lab to examine water quality.
Fast forward to 2002, municipal officials (including Dordrecht city planners) began exploring the idea of converting the former public works site into an industrial park. Around the same time, the city was also entertaining the idea of repurposing the property with a group of investors (Daan van der Have, Hans Loos, and Dorine de Vos) who were responsible for the successful reinvention of Rotterdam’s historic Holland-Line America building into the Hotel New York. However, upon an initial visit to the derelict and neglected site the investors were turned off by the property. It was only later in 2003, when Loos and Van der Have were visiting city hall, that an old black-and-white photo of the tower caught their attention. The aerial photo from the 1930’s showed the strategically positioned and prominent water tower set amongst a series of waterways and a patchwork of land. This unique viewpoint sparked their imagination and eventually lead to a successful business venture and sustainable solution for the area. The three partners signed an agreement with the municipality to acquire and develop the property for an entirely new purpose; to serve as a hotel and café-restaurant. It was a win-win solution which meant that the historic water tower and adjacent pump-house would be saved and given a new life and purpose. The business partners played integral roles in developing the Villa Augustus concept and implementation. For example, Daan van der Have who grew up with his parent’s vegetable gardens had a renewed interest in growing organic seasonal foods and also promoting the role of locally produced food. Van der Have’s idea was to use the 1.5 hectares land for the creation of large, sustainable fruit and vegetable gardens. While his business partner, artist, and interior designer Dorine de Vos would apply her unique artistic vision and creative direction to the visual aspects of the refurbished hotel. The great transformation took place in 2006 and to the cost of approximately six million euros. De Vos would play tribute to the destroyed turret spires from the 1938 alteration by recreating their skeletal shapes in metal. After dark the four metal spires are illuminated with glowing effect. The Villa Augustus restoration project also greatly aided in the development and beautification of the entire area. Since its completion in 2007, Villa Augustus is now lively with activity; standing tall on the Oranjelaan and proudly overseeing the busy waterways. Its prominence commands attention from far and wide. The eclectic hotel, café, restaurant, and surrounding gardens takes its name from the Roman Emperor Augustus and also the month of August when the gardens are bountiful and ready for harvesting. The Dutch government has recognized the historical importance of Villa Augustus as being the second-oldest water tower in the country by granting it national monument status on March 18th, 2003.
Arriving at the stately front entrance you know that you are about to enter a special place. Inside the café, the market atmosphere is bustling with all sorts of activities, sweet smells, baked goodies, and quirky interior details. It is not required that you be a registered guest at the hotel in order to come and visit the grounds and explore the gardens or enjoy a cup of tea and a quick bite for brunch. The outdoor terrace at the back of the restaurant is a wonderful way to enjoy a Sunday afternoon. Sitting and overlooking the vegetable gardens, I enjoy a zucchini soup seasoned with flowers while watching the gardeners hard at work and the chef selectively picking bunches of edible flowers. Villa Augustus uses fresh and organic ingredients grown on-site and also supports local food suppliers. The vegetable garden and menu are a reflection of the changing seasons and the garden inspires the menu and vice versa. Freshly grown on-site are tomatoes, zucchini, eggplant, leaks, parsnips, cabbage, onions, garlic, black Tuscan kale, and red Batavia lettuce, to name a few.
After brunch, I wander around the exquisite gardens and catch the scent of thyme and rosemary. California poppies, asters, and dahlias are spotted throughout the winding pathways and the resident cat darts out of the bushes; hiding near the roses bushes. At various times throughout the year black currants, gooseberries, blueberries, raspberries and Japanese wine-berries can be found a plenty. I make my way to the waterside at the back of the tower and discover the finely manicured Italian Garden with its park-like setting, lily pond, water fountain, pathways, benches, and tea tables. A peaceful tranquil feeling prevails here. Adjacent to the garden, there is a small wooded area with oak, beech, willow, and various fruit trees. I take in the fresh breezes from the open water and the smell of lavender while exploring the pathways. The landscaping and trimmed hedges are adorned with sculptures peering out here and there. A number of greenhouses serve as growing rooms for the production of grapevines and vegetables. There are also two restored greenhouses (circa 1910) where early vegetables like lettuce, rucola, and cauliflower are grown. I also find the hot house named the Limonaia, where lemon and lime trees are kept during the winter months and where a variety of cultural events take place throughout the summer. A few feet away I come across rows of apple, peach, fig, and mulberry trees. I am told that there are five varieties of pears grown on the property. If you like, you could catch a boat to Rotterdam at the private landing on the far end of the property.
On the exterior of the tower, an elevator and a metal staircase were installed for accessibility. I make my way into the glass elevator and on the way up I am treated to impressive views of the surrounding gardens, landscape, and waterways. I arrive at the top floor to the Lantern Room where I will be staying on this evening. The converted bedroom is eclectic in its furnishings, artwork, and creative details which compliment the exposed industrial features of the interior and harken back to the building’s original function as a water tower and station. I climb up a tall metal spiral staircase in the centre of the bedroom and up to the second floor where the observation dome reveals a 360-degree birds-eye view of the surrounding area. In sight are the nearby Molen Kyck Over Den Dyck windmill, historic downtown area, gardens, and converging waterways. From this vantage point my eyes scan the distant waterways as a steady stream of boats and barges come and go from all directions; hauling various cargo to and from. In the distance I spot the silhouetted geometric skyline of modern Rotterdam cutting across the fiery sky. When the sun sets, the city glows, and the tower’s turrets illuminate brightly. I head downtown to take in a late night concert at the nearby Bibelot Poppodium music venue. The next morning, I go for a short bike ride in the area and happen upon a life-sized replica of Noah’s Ark moored on the Noord River. This modern day Noah’s Ark was built by the Dutch carpenter Johan Huibers and serves as an exhibit with multiple floors and displays.
All in all, Villa Augustus is a relaxing, unique, and highly memorable sojourn where a complete cultural schedule of art and music events take place throughout the year. Located nearby and reachable by boat you can escape to the solitude and vast nature of the Biesbosch National Park.