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SS Rotterdam

The SS Rotterdam returned to Rotterdam in 2008 and was moored permanently in Katendrecht. While a ship is not a building, this luxury floating hotel can certainly withstand comparison with a work of architecture. And the largest passenger vessel ever built in the Netherlands is inextricably linked to the post-war reconstruction of Rotterdam. A selection of architects, interior designers and artists contributed to the design.

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At a quarter to three yesterday afternoon the Holland America Line and the Rotterdamse Droogdok Maatschappij signed the contract for the construction of a new flagship for the H.A.L. This new ship, intended to replace the Statendam, which was lost in the war days of 1940, will be called the Rotterdam. It will cost around one hundred million guilders and is expected to take about four years to construct.

De Maasbode, 28 October 1955


In May 1940, the Statendam, the flagship of the Holland America Line built in 1929, was destroyed in the port of Rotterdam. After the war, it took quite some time before thoughts turned to its replacement, as the quays, warehouses and buildings on the Wilhelminapier first had to be rebuilt. Moreover, there was not enough money or material available. A financing plan was drawn up within the framework of the existing legal regulations put in place for the repair of war damage. From its own resources, the shipping company could contribute fifty million of the estimated one hundred million guilders (about 45 million euros) needed for construction, the Material War Damage Act provided credit of twenty million, and the National Recovery Bank offered additional credit of thirty million.

In late 1955, the Rotterdamsche Droogdok Maatschappij (RDM) was commissioned to construct the vessel, which would take about four years to complete. The shipyard where the vessel was to be constructed first needed to be greatly extended, but on 14 December 1956 the keel of the new ‘Queen of the Sea’ could finally be positioned.

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The final signature was added this afternoon to the contract for the construction of the new flagship of the Holland America Line. The Rotterdamse Droogdok will build this ship, called the Rotterdam, with the first sheet of the keel to be placed on the ramp next year and completion scheduled for 1960. The ship will cost an estimated 100 million guilders to build, for the financing of which a company called the ‘Mailschip Rotterdam’ has been set up. The Holland America Line, which is the sole director of this company, is providing 50 million guilders of its own funds, while the National Recovery Bank is covering the remaining 50 million guilders.

De Volkskrant, 28 October 1955

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Tomorrow’s ship

Design work started with a budget that eventually totalled 126 million guilders (about 57 million euros) under the motto 'Tomorrow’s ship, ready today'. The HAL already foresaw that the aeroplane would replace the ocean liner in the near future. So apart from serving as a transatlantic passenger vessel, the Rotterdam would therefore largely be deployed as a cruise ship. Because of that, the traditional distinction between first class and tourist class was tackled in a novel way. The various categories of passengers were not segregated on different decks but were horizontally separated by a double staircase in the middle of the vessel, enabling passengers to pass one another unnoticed.

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Rotterdam has been rebuilt again

Various factors were considered in selecting a name for the ship. Mister De Monchy recalled that the new Rotterdam was essentially replacing the Statendam, which was lost in the five war years. The city of Rotterdam was also destroyed during the same period. ‘Rotterdam has been rebuilt,’ he said, ‘and thus it is not so strange that a shipping company that repairs its war damage should call its new ship the SS Rotterdam.’

Algemeen Dagblad, 28 October 1955

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Fifth Rotterdam

It was HAL’s fifth passenger liner called Rotterdam. The first ship dated from 1872. The fourth ship with the name Rotterdam was dismantled in 1940. Incidentally, a sixth ship with the name Rotterdam entered service in 1998.

The technical design was undertaken by the shipping engineers of the RDM led by H.W. Stapel. Work on the interior was supervised by C.J. Engelen, chief interior architect of the HAL. The ship was slightly bigger than the Nieuw Amsterdam (37,000 gross register tonnage compared to 36,667) and slightly faster (22.5 nautical miles an hour compared to 22). It had a capacity of 1,300 passengers compared to 1,200. A total of eighteen architects were involved in the interior design. They were free in their choice of materials and could even select artists for decorative elements. That resulted in a wide array of spaces.

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Accompanied by strange music, namely the jingle-jangle of warning bells on two huge shipyard cranes, the first components of the big ship Rotterdam of the Holland America Line were assembled today on one of the ramps of the Rotterdamsche Droogdokmaatschappij. The keel consists of a series of base plates weighing 25 tonnes and a bottom section of 35 tonnes.

Het Rotterdamsch Parool, 14 December 1956

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Queen Juliana christened the ship on 13 September 1958 in front of a crowd of 30,000 guests. The Rotterdam set off on its first sea trial on 11 July 1959 amid great public interest. The ship embarked on its maiden crossing to America on 3 September 1959, with on board guests of honour Crown Princess Beatrix (wearing a lemon-yellow two-piece suit) and Minister Luns. The Rotterdam docked in the port of New York from 11 to 22 September. There was a festive cultural programme on board, with film screenings and drama performances, and a concert by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra.

The vessel contained 443 tourist-class and 121 first-class cabins, and a further 12 extra-luxurious cabins. The first-class dining room was 400 square metres in size with a capacity of 296 places; the tourist-class dining room was over 700 square metres in size and could seat 562 people.

Maiden Voyage SS Rotterdam

The artists will also prove useful to the flagship. Indeed, some time ago the director of the company noted that the ships of the Holland America Line should demonstrate the best of Dutch culture. And this will certainly be the case with the new flagship, which will uphold the prestige of Dutch shipping and shipbuilding internationally.

De Telegraaf, 9 April 1955

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Post-war art

The Amsterdam architect Han van Tienhoven designed the central staircase; the six glass partition walls were by Willem Akkermans. The staircase was designed in such a way that first-class and tourist-class passengers would not meet each other. Van Tienhoven also designed the Ambassador Room, the dining rooms and the passenger cabins. He was of the view that cabins should not be too cosy, so that passengers would prefer to frequent the restaurants and bars.

At the top of the ship, overlooking the Sports Deck, are the Sky Room and Sun Room. They were designed by Joost Schuil, as was the big Ritz Carlton reception room. This room extends over two levels and features exotic paintings and decorative motifs inspired by the sea. The well-known Rotterdam interior architect Carel Wirtz, who mostly designed cinemas and theatres (including the old Luxor and Calypso), was responsible for the Smoking Room, the Card Room and the Tropic Bar, fitted with decorative elements by the Rotterdam artist Wally Elenbaas.

Other smaller spaces, such as Café de la Paix by Jan van Bommel, the Club Room by Jac Semey and the Ocean Bar by H.P. Mutters, were designed for tourist-class passengers. The auditorium, which extends over two levels, was designed by the Rotterdam architect Cornelis Elffers. It was open to all passengers, but the balcony was reserved for first-class passengers only.

Architect van Tienhoven was of the view that cabins should not be too cosy, so that passengers would prefer to frequent the restaurants and bars.

At the bottom of the ship was the swimming pool, designed by the well-known Rotterdam architect Hugh Maaskant. This extremely modern space was almost entirely clad in tiles. The pool itself measured 5.5 by 8.5 metres and was 2 metres deep. The floor featured a mosaic of stylised fish by the Rotterdam artist Wim van de Weerd. There was also an outdoor pool on the promenade deck.

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The SS Rotterdam in 2018

Iris van den Broek, Rotterdam Make it Happen


In the early 1960s, transatlantic shipping began to decline owing to the growth in air travel. From 1960 on, the SS Rotterdam started to be deployed as a cruise ship. It undertook cruises that took in four continents. The final crossing to New York departed in 1971, after which the Rotterdam was permanently deployed as a cruise ship. From 1997 on, Premier Cruises operated the ship under the name Rembrandt; on 26 October 1998 the ship even returned briefly to the Wilhelminakade in Rotterdam. After Premier Cruises filed for bankruptcy in 2000, the ship was moored in Freeport in the Bahamas, and plans were then made to take the vessel back to Rotterdam.

In 2008 the SS Rotterdam finally returned to Rotterdam. Parts of the original interior had been lost through various refurbishments. However, the wonderful ship was restored to its former glory. An advantage of being moored permanently in Katendrecht is that everybody can now visit this remarkable attraction. Visitors can eat, drink and sleep in style, or take a peek behind the scenes with a guided tour. There are also facilities for congresses and music events.

The expensive renovation was financed by Woonbron housing corporation. The renovation and asbestos removal were initially budgeted at 6 million euros, but the work eventually cost 256 million!

During the gala dinner on its maiden voyage as a cruise ship, director De Monchy had commented: ‘This ship has not become a museum and could not become one. Nonetheless, it is a good example of what the Dutch artist community was able to achieve.’ Yet in the end, the SS Rotterdam did become a museum of art from the post-war period!

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Iris van den Broek, Rotterdam Make it Happen, 2018

W. Stapel (RDM), C.J. Engelen (HAL)
3e Katendrechtse Hoofd, Rotterdam, Nederland
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