The article below was published in Pinnable’s newsletter in .


At Home with Groningen’s Rural Gentry

Elsewhere in the Netherlands you will find castles, in Groningen we have borgen — manor houses, which were the homes of the rural gentry. Most of them started out as thick-walled brick-built houses, and over time expanded into the stately homes of today, or actually of the 17th & 18th centuries, to be precise. Only sixteen borgen are still in place; the rest were sold for their materials, the last one having been demolished in 1903. My favourite borg is the Menkemaborg in Uithuizen, which in its current form dates from around 1700, when Unico Allard Alberda commissioned architect Allert Meijer to redesign the house & garden to meet the taste of the time for symmetry. Today the borg is a museum that conveys a striking impression of how the Groningen squiredom lived.

The Menkemaborg’s study
The Menkemaborg’s study

Only a few furniture pieces at the borg have been around forever; most of what you see today came from elsewhere, especially from borgen that no longer exist. The museum therefore shows not how it was, but how it could have been. Of special interest are five oak mantelpieces by Allert Meijer & Jan de Rijk, all with overmantel paintings by Herman Collenius, the grand state bed in the style of Daniel Marot, lavishly upholstered with Chinese silk damask, and the largest extant cabinet organ in the country, dating from 1777. The borg is surrounded by a formal garden in Dutch classicist style; children will appreciate the maze until the moment they realize that they are trapped, while their parents are enjoying themselves in the delightful rose archway, just out of earshot.

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Most borgen initially existed as steenhuizen, built in the 13th & 14th centuries to provide a safe shelter in times of trouble. These structures were based on a nearly square ground plan of around 100 m², and at least three storeys high, typically with 1-m-thick brick walls. The entrance was placed on the first floor, and was accessible via a ladder that could be pulled up, which made the place really safe & really inconvenient for permanent residence. After the introduction of the cannon these steenhuizen could no longer provide sufficient protection, and they were converted to normal houses with proper doors, windows, &c. Today, there is only one steenhuis left in Groningen: the Iwema Steenhuis in Niebert, which became a farmhouse that lacks the large windows you would normally find in the facade of such a homestead. Two steenhuizen that are more easily recognizable are the Skierstins in Veenwouden (or Feanwâlden in the Frisian vernacular) and, just across the German border, the Steinhaus in Bunderhee, a hamlet north of Bunde. The latter was built in the 14th century, even though the law of the land stipulated in § 150 of the Brokmerbrief (c. 1300) that castles, walls & high steenhuizen were not allowed, and that offenders were to be fined 8 marks. (‘Brocmen kiasath thet to enre kere, thet ther nena burga and nena mura and nene hage stenhus ni mote wesa bi achta mercum.’)


We don’t know much about Menkema Castle’s earliest history, other than that the former stone house was destroyed in 1400. Osebrandt Clant & his wife Josina Manninga restored the place in 1614, ‘by God’s grace’, and after Mello Alberda purchased the castle in 1682, he further expanded it. During the years between 1701 & 1705, Mello’s son Unico Allard & his wife Everdina Cornera van Berum converted Menkema Castle to its present form.


After Gerhard Alberda van Menkema, the last scion of his family, died in April 1902, the children of his late sister Elisabeth Anna inherited two borgen: the Menkemaborg in Uithuizen, his home, and the Dijksterhuis, aka Huis ten Dijke, in Pieterburen. Most of their furniture was sold at a two-day boeldag sale in September the same year; Huis ten Dijke went up for auction three months later, and after the buyer had the borg demolished in March 1903, he sold it in bits & pieces. The Menkemaborg was spared the same fate: in 1920, Alberda van Menkema’s heirs offered it to what is the Groninger Museum today. Seven years later, after the borg was refurbished & refurnished with stuff from borgen elsewhere, it opened its doors to the public, featuring two lion statues on the moat bridge that stood in front of the Dijksterhuis until 1903.


Two years after the Menkemaborg became part of the Groninger Museum in 1921, its garden was reconstructed in accordance with the original design from 1705, with the addition of a rose archway & a supercool maze. In the good old days, the estate was virtually self-supporting with fruit, vegetables & herbs from its orchard & kitchen garden, and milk, meat, poultry & eggs from its own farm, the schathuis. The borg’s 18th-century cookbook shows what was on the menu, such as fish from the viskenij fish pond, or pigeons from the dovecote — keeping pigeons was one of the privileges the squire enjoyed. (By the way, the word schat in ‘schathuis’ does not mean ‘treasure’ in this case, but instead it’s derived from the Old Frisian word sket, which also means ‘cattle’.)


The Menkemaborg is not the only place in Groningen where you can see the work of cabinetmaker Allert Meijer & woodcarver Jan de Rijk. From the late 17th century onward the prolific duo worked their way through the province; other creations of theirs are the organ loft of St Bartholomew’s Church in Stedum, the organ case of the Schnitger organ at the Der Aa Church in Groningen, the squires’ pews at St Hippolytus’ Church in Middelstum & St Peter’s Church in Pieterburen, and the pulpit of the Church of Midwolde. On an unrelated note, perhaps Meijer’s most prominent design is the iconic tower of the aforementioned Der Aa Church, which he created after he became city architect of Groningen in 1705.


There are two more borgen in Groningen that can be visited: the Fraeylemaborg in Slochteren & the Borg Verhildersum in Leens. The former was lastly owned by the family with the third longest surname in the country, Thomassen à Thuessink van der Hoop van Slochteren, and became a museum in 1975, featuring period rooms with furniture from elsewhere — when they left the borg in 1971, the last owners had sold everything — and an English landscape garden. The latter is a small & robust borg with a splendid formal garden that can easily compete with that of the Menkemaborg. Incidentally, the mantelpiece in Verhildersum’s grand reception room, by Meijer & De Rijk, originates from the Menkemaborg, where it was removed at the end of the 18th century, when the front room of the house was refurbished in neoclassicist style.


In its side & lower margins, the map Nova Totius Provinciæ Groningo-Omlandiæ Tabula (1781) depicts 24 borgen in Groningen. In their present form, the Menkemaborg & Fraeylemaborg look more or less similar; the Borg Verhildersum today lacks a wing. (Judging by the engravings on a map from a century earlier, Prov. Groningiæ et Omlandiæ Tabula, Verhildersum today lacks half the building.)


A short film (16 min., in Dutch, with subtitles in English) about the history of Verhildersum can be found on Vimeo. It shows, among other things, how the borg lost both its wings & its gatehouse.

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