The unique feature of the historic inner city of Paramaribo is the simplicity and uniformity of its very symmetrical architecture. This is the result of building with wood, the most prominent natural, local product, in a relatively isolated area. It is not an architecture of renowned architects, but one of craftsmen. These builders had no other architecturally interesting cities in the area where they could pick up new ideas. That is why there are so few grand building monuments in Paramaribo. That is not such a pity, the unique characteristic of the city actually is the unity that is shaped by rhythm of the simple buildings.
After the discovery of Suriname in 1499 by Alonso de Ojeda, French colonists were the first to settle on the banks of the Suriname river around 1640. They built a simple wooden fortification on a slight elevation in a bend on the left bank. Over 20 years later the British ruled the colony. The fort was improved and named Fort Willoughby, after the governor of Barbados. In 1667 the Zealanders under Abraham Crijnssen conquered the fort, which they renamed Fort Zeelandia. The city that was developed behind the fort soon took over the function of capital from the upstream Thorarica settlement. Amerindians, who realized the strategic position of the spot, must have lived there prior to the arrival of the Europeans. They called the spot Parmurbo or Parmirbo, from which the name Paramaribo is derived. The name New Middelburg, given to it by the Zealanders after their capital , never took root.
Starting from the fortress Paramaribo was extended westward, following the pattern of the shell ridges that run from east to west and served as solid foundation soil (Gravenstraat / Arronstraat, Lim A Postraat, Heerenstraat, Keizerstraat are built on these ridges). Between the fort and the town were large parade grounds which later would become the Oranjeplein / Independence Square. Since the city could only be attacked from the river, it was not considered necessary to construct walls and moats around it. Yet the first streets (the Heerenstraat, Watermolenstraat, Kromme Elleboogstraat, Oranjestraat / Mr.dr. JC de Mirandastraat) were surprisingly narrow, as one would only expect in a cramped fortified town. And old prints of the Gravenstraat show that this street initially was not as wide as it is nowadays.
In the early 18th century the city boundaries were marked by the Gravenstraat, Klipstenenstraat and the Knuffelsgracht (see the green part on the old map to the left, which actually is drawn upside down). The town then consisted of 50 houses, the slave houses in the yards not included. The plan consisted mainly of parallel streets, except for the Kromme Elleboogstraat and Hofstraat.
Around 1740 the town was extended with the Zwartenhovenbrugstraat and Steenbakkersgracht / Dr. Sophie Redmondstraat as the new borders. This extension no longer followed the direction of the shell ridges, but that of the bank of the river, with the Maagdenstraat and the Domineestraat parallel to the Waterkant (Waterfront). So a triangle was formed that laid against the otherwise rigid rectangular street plan that it still the main grid of new extensions today.
The streets were wider and the lots were clearly larger in this part of town. The creeks that were dug for drainage, all ran parallel to the shell banks. Today some parts are filled: the Sommelsdijcksekreek, Viottekreek, Picornikreek-Knuffelsgracht, Steenbakkersgracht, Drambrandersgracht, and Limesgracht.
Ten years later, the areas around the Weidestraat and Burenstraat were built. A further extension came into effect around 1772 when the Wanicastraat and Drambrandersgracht became the boundaries of a city of 1200 houses. That extension went rapidly; in 1789 the number of houses listed is already 1776. Still that was not enough; soon afterwards (in 1791) construction began on the first suburb, Combé, built north of the town.
After the abolition of slavery in 1863 it was mandatory for the ex-slaves to work on the plantations for 10 years. But after that period a migration flow started from the plantations to the city, which made a further urban expansion necessary. In the middle of the 19th century the city’s boundaries were formed by Combé, de Sommelsdijcksekreek, de Van Idsingastraat, de Drambrandersgracht, de Wanicastraat en de Domineekreek.
After 1945, when the city was around 13,000 houses large, the plantations Beekhuizen and Zorg en Hoop to the southwest were added to the city, but the town also expanded in northern direction. Anno 2006 the city spreads like an inkblot over a wide area.
Because of two major fires the oldest buildings are not necessarily to be found the older parts of town. In 1821 a fire raged at the Oranjeplein and the Waterkant, in 1832 the western part of the Waterkant was burnt to ashes. So the houses in these parts are from after the fires.
After the fires measures were ordained to use non-combustible material for the roofing of the houses: slate and baked roof tiles instead of leaves (for the slave houses) and wooden shingles.
In June 2002 the historic inner city of Paramaribo was added to the World Heritage list of UNESCO.
There are some misunderstandings about the Unesco World Heritage list. Being listed e.g. does not mean that Unesco provides money for the project. On the contrary, a country has to commit itself to maintain the project and needs to allocate quite some money for that task.
As far as the historic inner city of Paramaribo is concerned, not all the buildings in the Unesco area (blue on the map) are considered monuments.
Due to the rapid expansion in the past, the inner city is mainly built in wood. Brick was not only expensive, building in brick was slower and probably the brick works could not keep up with the orders. In addition to bricks, these works also had to manufacture flat tiles and pantiles for the roofing. The knowledge of building in wood was brought to the country by carpenters working on board the ships that came to Suriname and by migrants from the Moravian Church who settled in Suriname.
At first sight there seems to be a wide variety of wooden houses in the inner city. But upon closer examination there are fixed values and just a few standard profiles to be distinguished.
The Surinamese wooden houses have a conveniently arranged rectangular pattern as a base. Brick stoops lead to a symmetrical façade of white, horizontal boards. The high roofs with one or more dormers face the street. The doors, shutters and louvres are painted in serene dark green colours.
Most houses have a brick foundation on top of which a wall is laid that is some layers of dark (red) painted brick high or short base blocks made in brick. They support the floor beams, aided by a base block in the centre. A perimeter beam serves as the base of a wooden skeleton on which white facade boards of a foot wide are fixed horizontally. The bottom board was always profiled in earlier days: every carpenter had his own profiles and could in that way give his own signature to the building.
In most cases the buildings are positioned in the width; with the ridge parallel to the street. The high roofs contribute to an aura of distinction. The floor beams run from front to rear façade. The distribution of the beams is one of the reasons of the steady rhythm of the bays in which the house is divided. The optimum distance affects the rhythm of the whole town. The symmetry that is used enhances the harmonious atmosphere that emanates from the buildings.
This symmetry usually starts with a double door in the axis of the facade, with an equal number of bays to both sides that have windows with shutters. The symmetry is repeated in the upper floors, where the bays are only marked by sliding windows, louvres or wooden shutters.
The roofing materials used in the first centuries required a steep slope: pina leaves, wooden shingles, slate, pantiles and various types of flat tiles. Only with the introduction of the galvanized zinc roof around 1870 it became possible to construct flatter roofs. This led to a different construction: a rectangular facade behind which a roof slightly sloped to the rear. The impression though, was that of a flat roof (see Hendrikschool, Gravenstraat 34). Today (2007), most roofing is replaced by galvanized corrugated iron.
baked shingles slate roofing lead tiles copper tileplates
corrugated zinc apparently flat roof (zinc)
Typical of the Surinamese wooden architecture are the dormers, the ridge of which is on the same level as the main ridge of the building. The facades of the dormers lie in the plane of the main facade and almost always have two windows, sometimes with a semicircular window above them.
Colonnade porticos, an influence from the south-eastern states of North America, and balconies are other characteristics of the Surinamese architecture style, although the first balconies only appear in the middle of the 19th century. Before 1850 only small balconies the size of a window or door are seen. Larger balconies were probably built as a sign of prosperity. The columns and pillars were supported by brick base blocks that were sometimes part of the old stoop, but just as often stood apart from that stoop. Sometimes the balcony was provided with windows and shutters, thus creating a gallery.
On narrow lots, the houses are usually built with the gable facing the street. But the side walls in the depth are symmetrical, just like with the houses built in the width of the street, and also have dormers, as if they were façades facing the street.
In the details the craftsman could give a house his own touch. In the brick stoops, the stone bases, the panel doors and door frames, the consoles of the profiled balcony posts, the balustrades of the balconies. Less often one can find columns with capitals, arches between the posts and decorated pediments. One can discover an acroterion every now and then happen, but that is an exception. It was mainly during the time that the houses were extended with status-enhancing balconies, that the ornaments were introduced.
Below is a small selection of details of the buildings.
For more details, click here.
Many residential buildings changed function in the course of the 20th century. The ground floors were modified to become shops or offices. The facade of the ground floor was changed and the stoop was removed. To access the living quarters in the upper floors, an extended staircase with a roof was made at the side of the building; these unattractive additions ruined the stern and clear-cut image of the houses.
There are not that many buildings in Paramaribo that are constructed completely in brick. Those that are, interesting as they may be, do not contribute to the specific character of the white timber city. They are clearly designed by European architects.
Only three buildings are built in an original European brick style: Fort Zeelandia (including Building 1790), Independence Square 3 and 4: the Ministry of Finance and the High Court of Justice. Here the clean, unpainted brick (carried from the Netherlands as ballast on board the ships) is combined with natural stone. The other brick buildings are constructed in locally manufactured brick that is painted or plastered.
Surinamese brick style (painted) Gravenstraat 3 European brick: Independence Square 3 en 4 (rear façades)
Civil constructions such as locks were also executed in brick, as were many shrines. They reflect the craftsmanship of local masons.