Did you know that the Governor of the National Bank of Belgium has an official residence within the Bank itself for the entire duration of his mandate? It is known as the Hôtel du gouverneur, and is being opened to the public specially for the Heritage Days on 14 and 15 September. It is located on the rue du Bois Sauvage, right next to the Cathedral of Saint Michael and Saint Gudula, and was constructed by Belgian architects Henri Beyaert and Wynand Janssens between 1860 and 1874, their work having started ten years after the foundation of the National Bank.
Up until 1957, staying in the Hôtel was one of the professional obligations of the Governor-in-office. In exchange for this, the Bank took on board the furnishing and the upkeep of the residence. There was an ulterior motive behind the idea that the person at the top of the institution’s management should live in a stately home adjoining the premises. The direct proximity and thus availability of the Bank’s highest authority was indeed a definite advantage in terms of security and continuity. In the event of the Governor’s absence, during holidays for example, another high-level official had to stay in the Hôtel all the time.
From an architectural point of view, the front of the building bears several references, mainly of an ornamental nature, to the banking world and prosperity. Caryatids symbolising Trade and Industry surround the private entrance while a female allegory representing Peace encircles the pediment.
This in turn has nautical features, with the bows of a ship in classical art style and depiction of the main sea and inland waterway ports like Antwerp, Ostend, Ghent and Liège. With all this ornamentation, the endeavour was to to conjure up visions of security, confidence and power. The railings that link up the two avant-corps and seal the windows on the ground floor form another distinctive feature of bank building architecture. They effectively highlight the security of the premises and underline the building’s function. In the middle of their angular design, the Bank’s initials stand out with their swirling, plant-like pattern. Moreover, the delicately forged ironwork bears witness to Beyaert’s desire to relaunch this lost art. It is also worth noting that as early as the Hôtel’s construction phase, the architects had been asked to allow for the façade to be lit up on special occasions. The objective was for the Bank to be able to participate in its own way in public festivities, or réjouissances publiques as they were referred to at the time, such as Belgium’s National Day on July 21st.
As for the layout of the premises, the Governor’s office, the Board of Directors’ room and the General Meeting room are all on the ground floor of the building and have been an integral part of the Museum since 2002. These are separated from the hallway of the Hôtel by double doors. A grand staircase leads to the reception and entertainment rooms as well as to the private quarters. Visitors using this imposing staircase in white marble, with a large bay window bringing abundant light into it, are given the opportunity to admire an array of life sculptures. Their symbolism constitutes a link between the economic imagery of the building’s façade and the softer allegories featured in the staterooms on the first floor. On the subject of decoration, it is also important to point out that it was Beyaert who developed all these elements, including the decorative items, before even having chosen the artists. His work was therefore not strictly limited to drawing up the master plans for the building.
Up on the first floor, the centrepiece turns out to be the banquet room. At the time of building the premises, Governor François-Philippe de Haussy had insisted that the architects present this room as one of the key sections of the Hôtel. So, Beyaert paid a great deal of attention to it, as can be seen by many of the coloured plans, sketches and designs of ornamental details. Some finishing items like the wall light fixtures, the door handles or the mouldings had even been made in life-size plaster. The aim was obviously to get a clear idea of the final rendering. This room was destined to host festive gatherings and official functions. Following an approach based on mythology, the interior decor thus bears many references to the arts and sciences. As for the technicalities, each pictorial element, oil-painted on canvas, has been stick to the wall itself.
In the hallway leading to the banquet room, there are five drawing rooms in a row each looking onto the street, as well as a smoking room and a winter garden. These were originally intended for domestic purposes, as evidenced by lighter ornamentation than in the previous room. There, comfort was also primordial, just as on the second floor where the bedrooms are. This part of the Governor’s Hôtel is the section that has changed the most over time. When taking up office, each new Governor could actually make changes to suit his own or his wife’s personal taste. With this in mind, at Governor Janssen’s request, a games room for children as well as a nanny’s room were put in back in 1939, for instance.
However, the Hôtel was just the town residence of the governors and their families, and several of them seemed to prefer living in their own homes. Moreover, in 1957, Governor Ansiaux wanted to undertake major refurbishment work to modernise the building which a committee felt would be too costly and authorised him to move into a house in Uccle.
His successors have not shown any desire to come back to live in the Hôtel. Lifestyles have changed and there is now an increasingly clear distinction between professional and private life. But the Hôtel has by no means been abandoned. Today, it still serves as the Bank’s official residence and is used for entertaining.
- Danneel M., Logie C., Pluym W. (e.a.), The Hôtel of the Governor of the National Bank of Belgium, Antwerp, Petraco-Pandora, 1995.
- L’Hôtel de la Banque nationale de Belgique à Bruxelles, Brussels (NBB), s.d.