Once upon a time the University Library was a palace — Do you think all the students around are aware that they’re studying in a former royal palace?
Due to rheumatic complaints, Louis Napoleon – the younger brother of the French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who had crowned him King of Holland – decided to move his residency from The Hague to Utrecht.
In 1807, he ordered a palace to be fully equipped on the corner of the Drift and the Wittevrouwenstraat. In that year, 200 labourers started on urgent renovations which were completed in 1809. Before long, the palace was found to be too small. It was impossible to have dinner parties with large numbers of guests. In those occasions they had to divert to other premises. So, it did not take long before the king commissioned the construction of a new wing behind Drift 27. This new wing consisted of a ‘grande galerie’ and two salons. However, a short time later and despite all the renovations, Louis Napoleon chose Amsterdam’s former town hall – the Palace on the Dam – as his main residence. The building in Utrecht would serve as a second residential home.
As a result of this, the general public considered the king as a champion wastrel. The Utrecht chemist Hendrick Keetell visited the palace and had strong views on what he saw. According to Keetell when it came to the interior ‘nothing was too fine, nothing was too valuable, as in wall papers, chimneys, et cetera, to complete the palace’s perfection’. He said that the furniture was ‘to express it in just one word, royal’. Beds with coverings, carpets, curtains, mirrors, tables, chairs, ‘yes, it was all new, exceptionally beautiful and according to the latest taste’. The latest taste was then the so-called French Empire style.
Two years later, in September 1810, king Louis Napoleon was ordered by his brother to abdicate the throne. The Netherlands officially became part of France. And after that, the Utrecht palace started to disintegrate.
In 1815, the general library of Utrecht University took the ballroom into its possession. As the library expanded, more and more of the former palace was purchased. Finally, the entire building ended up in the hands of the University. Where Louis Napoleon once wandered down the corridors, students now look for a free spot to study.