The first Apple store in the Netherlands is opening on 3 March 2012 in Amsterdam. The location of the Apple Store is the historic Hirsch Building on the Leidseplein, one of the busiest squares in the city. For years now, Amsterdammers have been waiting for an Apple store to come to town but finding an outstanding location must have been difficult for Apple. They couldn’t have picked a better building than the Hirsch.
The illustrious and tragic history of the Hirsch Building
The Hirsch Building has a long history. It takes its name from the luxury department store called Hirsch & Cie. which used to own the building and occupy its premises. It was not a department store in the way we think of a department store today. Hirsch was an haute couture salon (with some ready-to-wear clothing) for upper-class women; it also sold gloves, hats, lingerie and other accessories.
Hirsch & Cie. originated in Brussels in 1869 and had branches in Amsterdam (1882), Cologne, Dresden and Hamburg. The founder of the Hirsch department store empire was Leo Hirsch, a German-Jewish entrepreneur who died in 1909. Sylvain Kahn and Sally Berg, who were managers of the Brussels store, came to Amsterdam in 1882 to open the Amsterdam branch because no one in the Netherlands at that time was offering luxury made-to-measure clothes to the upper classes.
In 1912, Hirsch & Cie. moved into the Hirsch Building which had been designed by architects A.J. Jacot and J. Snuijff. At that time it was considered one of most beautiful department stores in Europe. The Amsterdam “beauty committee” (the urban planning commission) thought otherwise; they were appalled to find it a shameless copy of Selfridges, a department store that had opened in 1909 in London (and is still in operation). The Hirsch building’s neoclassical lines and its imposing palatial structure nevertheless found many admirers not just among the owners and employees of the store, but among Amsterdammers as well.
Among Hirsch & Cie.’s clients were Queens Emma, Wilhelmina and Juliana of the Netherlands, as well as the notorious spy, Mata Hari.
The First World War and the years shortly thereafter were difficult ones for Hirsch, in part because of the competition from ready-to-wear clothing stores, but the company survived. It even thrived for a while in the 1930s because of the arrival of a famous German-Jewish couturier named Richard Goetz, who served the prosperous German-Jewish families who had fled Germany for what they believed to be a safe haven in the Netherlands.
Unfortunately, the Second World War broke out and it did not spare the Netherlands. The mostly Jewish management and staff of Hirsch & Cie. were arrested and deported. Most never returned. The company was forced into bankruptcy during the war years and its inventory were carted off to Germany. The building itself suffered substantial damage during the war.
After the war, Hirsch opened again but it never succeeded as it had in the pre-war years. Competition from cheaper, ready-to-wear stores, the decline of haute couture in the Netherlands, and changing tastes in fashion led to the store’s closure in 1976.
When I lived in Amsterdam between 1995 and 2008, the Hirsch Building was a mix of retail bank and office space: the ground floor and mezzanine, where the Apple Store is located, was then an ABN-AMRO bank, and the upper floors were occupied by law and consulting firms.
A Dutch-Jewish friend told me that when he was very young, he used to accompany his grandmother and grand-aunts to Hirsch twice a year (fall-winter and spring-summer) where they would have their wardrobes replenished. Clothing and even footwear was made-to-measure in those days, at least for the upper classes. My friend recalled how elegant and inspiring the interior of the building had looked back then. The trips to Hirsch – and there were many because the women had to go for several fittings – were always a big event.
The Hirsch building is also rumored to be haunted by ghosts of its former Jewish managers and employees wandering the hallways, so claims my friend. Of course, many Amsterdammers will tell you that’s nonsense, but then again in old buildings like the Hirsch, which have seen triumphant and tragic moments, there are always ghosts hanging about.
The opening of the Apple store in the Hirsch Building is now generating tremendous excitement among Amsterdammers, just as the opening of the Hirsch & Co. department store did in 1912.