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Gabled Houses on Amsterdam's Canal Ring

The gabled houses on the Canal Ring are Amsterdam's most picture-perfect historic feature. The infinite array of gables on the city houses dominates the city's postcard-perfect image and is a carefully preserved asset.

Starting in the 16th century, the different gable types were used to camouflage the end of sharp, pitched roofs and architectural idiosyncrasies. The lack of firm land meant that Amsterdam houses were built on narrow, deep plots, and one of the only ways to make a property distinctive was at the top, with a decorative gable. The most famous design was the step gable, which rises to a pinnacle, and was also used in Flemish architecture, as seen in the Belgian town of Bruges. Gable variants include spout, step, neck, elevated neck, Dutch, bell, and cornice, and they often include splendid scrollwork and ornamentation.

Styles came and went, so the type of gable can reflect how old a house is (provided they are both the same age; nowadays, sometimes the gable is saved and the house behind redeveloped). The Brouwersgracht (Brewers' Canal) has colorful facades harking back to Amsterdam's brewing trade with the towns of the Hanseatic League. Some gables include decorative panels that show what was being stored: grain, wood, gold, or coffee. Others have symbolic pictorial decorations, and many carry the merchant family's shield.

One thing all canal houses have in common is the hook in the gable, to which a pulley wheel and rope can be attached. This handy manual elevator system was developed from medieval shipping techniques; it's pretty impossible to move bulky goods up and down the precariously steep staircases found inside most Amsterdam houses. Boxes, pianos, couches, or whatever are winched up using the rope and pulley, and hauled in through exceptionally wide removable windows. Keep your eyes peeled as you walk through the city and you may see a few Dutch movers in action.

Updated: 2013-11-20

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