Robin von Weiler is a familiar face in Rotterdam. He earned his nickname, Mr. Meent, because of all he’s done, and continues to do, for the street. In 2001 he bought the Minerva Houses, located between the building where Café Dudok is located and the World Trade Centre, and restored it with respect for the various styles of architecture. He transformed the monotonous and lifeless character of Meent, lined at the time with employment agencies and travel agencies, by setting to work as a surgeon. He helped to ensure that anything that didn’t enhance the atmosphere of the street disappeared to make way for local entrepreneurs and lots of diversity.
Von Weiler looks at the overall quality and atmosphere of Meent, and especially also the public space of the street and side streets. “The policy of the city is to remove a lot of parking spaces in the city centre. Except that you then draw the blood from the veins of a city street like Meent, because it limits access to the shops. So we reached a compromise with the city whereby the sidewalks are now much wider, and that boosts the appeal of the street again.”
Open-air museum of post-war architecture
With great passion he talks about the street that he calls an ‘open-air museum of post-war reconstruction architecture’. “The love blossomed slowly. You have to learn to look and understand what makes it so remarkable and valuable. A painting by Mondriaan is more than just some coloured lines and planes. It’s about the underlying story.” It’s clear that he doesn’t want to keep the stories about Meent to himself; every prospective tenant is handed a booklet about the history of the Zandstraat neighbourhood and the Minerva Houses. “Once people know the story behind the building, they learn to appreciate it. And people look after things they appreciate.” He points out the sculptures by Johan van Berkel that grace the façade. “These, for example, are street figures from the time of the bombing, such as the balloon woman and the harmonica player. Not many people see it, but isn’t it so special?”
“The love blossomed slowly. You have to learn to look and understand what makes it so remarkable and valuable.”
One architect, three styles
The knowledge of the buildings that he acquired during the renovation of the Minerva Houses is all documented on the website www.minervahuis.nl. “I can talk about this for hours. It’s fantastic, for example, that the various Minerva Houses were designed by one architect and represent no fewer than three architecture movements? From before, during and after the war.”
“I can talk about this for hours.”
He trawled through archives and thoroughly enjoys guiding people around and pointing out all the details of the building. Beaming with pride, Von Weiler points to the latest purchase, number 115 on Meent, right opposite Minerva House ll, the former concierge’s home of the Stadstimmerhuis.
It’s an inconspicuous part of the recently restored building on a very prominent corner. “This home is a hidden beauty. Nobody knows it. We’ve now proposed a café here that will be a great addition to the street. And do you see those nine glazed engravings with professions above the oak door with all those panels? Typical post-war reconstruction art, amazing isn’t it!”
“This home is a hidden beauty. Nobody knows it.”
It’s another history that Von Weiler is keen to explore. His search for the last concierge to live here is yet another illustration of his interest in the story behind the building.
Normally speaking, Robin von Weiler prefers not to discuss private affairs. His motto is “Instead of low profile, we’d rather remain no profile”, but when the subject of conversation turns to his personal history with post-war reconstruction and property, he’s surprisingly candid. “I started with a residual debt of 30,000 guilders from the sale of my first owner-occupied apartment in Frederik van Eedenstraat. A post-war reconstruction apartment in Kralingen, where I had the pleasure of living in the early 1980s.”
“Instead of low profile, we’d rather remain no profile”
In the years that followed, Von Weiler gained experience in the property world. The projects that give him the greatest pleasure, he discovered, are those he can add value to, although such value is not always immediately quantifiable in financial terms. When Von Weiler bought the Minerva Houses, he had an opportunity to show what adding value means. “Atmosphere is all-important but, at the same time, it is difficult to define and to sell. Atmosphere, sensation, is the sum of subconscious impressions that enhance an ambiance that makes people feel good.” And both traders and the city authorities are happy with the metamorphosis that Meent has undergone.
“Atmosphere is all-important but, at the same time, it is difficult to define and to sell. Atmosphere, sensation, is the sum of subconscious impressions that enhance an ambiance that makes people feel good.”
A great compliment that Von Weiler once received was when a man wearing a hat, once the owner of a home furnishing store on Meent, stopped him on the street and said: “Do you realize what you’ve prevented with your initiative? You tackled the dull character of Meent long before the onset of the crisis which, along with the internet, forced the closure of the employment agencies and travel agencies that once defined the streetscape. Just imagine the consequences of all those vacant units on what had been a monotonous street. With so many empty shops, nobody would have wanted to relocate here. It would have spelled disaster.” Von Weiler himself hadn’t viewed it quite like that, he says with a smile, before returning to the business of the day.
“Do you realize what you’ve prevented with your initiative?”
“I’m going to hang historical photographs and maps from the City Archives and from our Minerva House Collection in the conference room of the business centre for start-ups and small businesses. A small exhibition. Want to have a look at them?” With screws in his hand, he says that since 2007 the business centre of Minerva House III has always been full thanks to its unparalleled level of service and word of mouth. What’s more, this year he plans to expand the business centre with twenty spaces in Minerva House l and II. Is that something worth adding to the article perhaps? One thing is certain, Von Weiler is definitely ambitious.