From Sint-Felixpakhuis (St Felix Warehouse) to FelixArchief - 27 April 2012
by Claire DEJAEGER
Another early rise for our visit to Antwerp - meeting point: platform 3 at Leuven station - departure of train to Antwerp 8.35 am and off we go for our second trip outside Leuven, to the Felix Archives in the morning to be followed by lunch in "de Zoltjes" and a visit of Antwerp in the afternoon, the city which thanks to its port, booming economy, international outlook, crafts and art was to be (and still is) the pride of the 16th century Southern Netherlands. The afternoon visit led us, among other things, to The Cathedral, where we admired Rubens' famous painting Christ's Descent from the Cross - 1612 with Rudi as our guide. We ended our day with a visit to the Plantin-Moretus museum.
Our walk to the archives led us to into an alley where we had a brief look at the Beguinage. A beguinage is a courtyard of small dwellings often encircled by a wall and secluded from the town by one or two gates, where beguines used to live, Roman Catholic lay sisters, who sought to serve God without retiring from the world devoting their lives to the help of the sick and the poor and to education - a typical phenomenon of the Low Countries, going back to the 12th and 13th centuries.
Upon arrival at the Felix Record Office the scientific advisor, Joost Depuydt, bade us welcome with coffee in the nice reception area on the top floor where our guide introduced us into the history of the building.
Built in the mid-19th century for the storage of bulk goods (coffee, hops, grain, cheese wine, tobacco) between the docks commissioned by Napoleon and the goods station at the other side, the Felix Archives have defined the appearance of this city quarter ever since. The imposing building was designed by the architect Felix Pauwels, hence the name Sint-Felixpakhuis. All the warehouses and depots in the port are known by specific names - a practice that survives to this day. Suppliers and port workers find them easier to remember than an address or a quay number
In 1861 a fire broke out in the neighbouring premises and quickly spread to the St-Felix warehouse, a catastrophe, the absence of internal walls set the whole building aflame, there were at least ten victims to be mourned.
The warehouse was rebuilt after the disastrous fire. The city administration imposed fire safety requirements, giving the building its present outlook. The building was divided into two wings, separated by a cobbled street of 6-7 metres and the rooms were to be partitioned by brick walls, to prevent the spread of fire. Another disaster occurred when the rear of the overloaded building collapsed. The collapsed block was rebuilt in 1895 and strengthened with 815 wooden columns. The Felix has had 1515 columns since that time.
In 1912 the city decided to purchase the Felix Warehouse as they fell short of storage space. Up to 1975 the warehouse used to be fully packed with various kinds of merchandise with a permanent Customs Officer on duty.
In May 1940 the Germans occupied the warehouse and requisitioned all the goods stored therein, coffee, tobacco, tea and the Felix was used as a military depot.
In September 1998 the Antwerp City Council agreed that the Felix would become the FelixArchief to house the City Archives.
We walked through the building from the public areas located on the top floor, with a splendid view from the dining area onto Willem dock, to the reading room, where some 100 visitors can consult the archives, to the work areas for processing archives on the lowest floors, to the depots located in concrete containers - they protect the precious documents against a fire outbreak, with lots of wood in the building extra care is of course a must.
In the reading room we admired the privilege chest, the first archive of the city.
Previously the city kept its (important) documents in the former town hall in this "privilege chest". The chest is more than two meters long, and secured with nine locks, the keys of which were distributed amongst nine city officials. The chest could only be opened if all of them unlocked it together. The first two documents to be stored inside were two charters dating from 1221.
After our visit Joost presented a power point presentation (see link below) and we had the opportunity to meet the Antwerp volunteers. There are about 10 volunteers for a staff of 44 people. Some of them evolved from an organisation called ADFA (association for the development of fine arts, an English-speaking group of people interested in the arts living in Antwerp). Inge and the rest of us were jealously comparing the staffing of the Leuven City Archives and the number of volunteers with the Antwerp situation. Joost stressed the fact that volunteer work had to be of a non-priority nature, so that volunteers do not take up regular jobs.