About the Glaspaleis

About the Glaspaleis

In the 1930s the centre of Heerlen witnessed the construction of an extraordinary building: the Glaspaleis. For its time, the building was exceptionally modern and innovative. The Glaspaleis was originally built as a department store. Commissioned by businessman Peter Schunck, it was designed in modernist style by architect Frits Peutz. Due to its height and abundant use of glass, the building was soon dubbed the ‘Glaspaleis’ by the locals, in English, the ‘glass palace’.

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The parallel histories of the Glaspaleis and Heerlen

The Glaspaleis is not just celebrated on account of its impressive architecture, but also for its colourful history, which mirrors that of the city of Heerlen itself. From prosperity and success to adversity. From the nadir of impending demolition, to the rescue and restoration of a special icon. From department store to office space. From supermarket and retail outlets to studios and an anti-squat, and more lately, to the cultural centre that is SCHUNCK, the standard bearer of the city’s new cultural spring.

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© Werner Mantz / Nederlands Fotomuseum

- Construction on the Glaspaleis was started in May 1934. 

- Schunck opened its doors on 31 May 1935 as a department store. 

- During the Second World War, the Glaspaleis suffered bomb damage on three occasions. The building served as an air-raid shelter, as a look-out post for the municipal anti-aircraft brigade, as temporary quarters for the US generals Patton and Simpson, and as a centre of rest and relaxation for American soldiers on leave from the front.    

- In 1949, Schunck splashed out on celebrations to mark its 75th anniversary. 

- Because the Glaspaleis gradually became too small, the Schunck department store moved into new premises on the Promenade in Heerlen in 1964. The escalators at the new location were seen as quite an innovation. 

- Meanwhile, the Glaspaleis continued its operations with the sale of Persian carpets, camping and garden furniture, beds, mattresses and blankets. 

- Amongst other things, the closure of the coal mines and the introduction of value-added tax in 1969 helped bring about a downturn in its fortunes. 

- No longer used as a store, the Glaspaleis was leased as office space to the Algemeen Burgerlijk Pensioenfonds (ABP), a pension fund for Dutch civil servants. 

- In 1973, the building was sold to architect Bep Groenendijk.

- A fully renovated Glaspaleis reopened on 13 November 1974.

- At the time, Heerlen was in a slump and facing many problems. The Glaspaleis suffered a similar decline and in the early Nineties, the now largely unoccupied building was designated for demolition.

- In 1993 a working group (Werkgroep Rehabilitatie Glaspaleis) was set up, aimed at breathing new life into the building. 

- In 1995, the Glaspaleis was made a listed monument. 

- The municipality acquired the building to restore it to its original condition. 

- In 1999, the Glaspaleis was put on a list of the 1000 most important buildings of the 20th century, drawn up by the International Union of Architects.  

- The renovation was carried out by architects Wiel Arets and Jo Coenen, so ensuring that the building took on its present form and appearance. The starting point for the project was for the Glaspaleis to retain its historic identity and for the restoration to replicate its original state as much as possible. It would also have to satisfy all modern-day health and safety requirements. 

- Renovation work started on 7 August 2000.

- In 2003, the renovated Glaspaleis re-opened its doors to the public as a ‘window on culture’, housing De Stadsgalerij, the municipal library and the school of music and dance.

- The official re-opening took place on 30 June 2004.

- On 1 January 2009, the name SCHUNCK was reintroduced, with the museum, school of music and library being incorporated into a single cultural organisation.

 

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© Werner Mantz / Nederlands Fotomuseum

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Entrance hall to Schunck department store, 1940s. Photograph: Rijckheyt, Collection 430 Schunck, number 0547a.

Architecture and Construction

The choice of Peutz as architect had much to do with the preference of Heerlen’s mayor at the time, Marcel van Grunsven. Van Grunsven was a keen admirer of modern art and architecture and had grand designs for the town. The idea of a modern department store appealed to him. Peutz had already completed various other buildings in Heerlen. Both Peter Schunck and Frits Peutz were enthusiastic about using glass. Not everyone welcomed the plans of Peter Schunck and Frits Peutz with open arms. The municipality, the residents of Heerlen, visitors and architects; there was a divergence of opinions about the obtrusive new building adjacent to the Pancratiuskerk.

Peter Schunck wanted his modern department store to reflect his innovative merchandising techniques. To do this he needed space to put stock on open sale and to unfurl rolls of fabric. He also wanted lots of natural light in the building. In total, the building extended to ten floors, constructed in concrete, glass and steel. The Glaspaleis was one of the first buildings in Heerlen with a lift. That was an attraction in itself. Even more impressive was the lift operator, who pressed the buttons and announced at every floor the products that were on sale.

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Photo: Bos, fotokamer Heerlen. Rights holder Rijckheyt, centre for regional history.

Renovation in the 1970s

Heerlen was faced with major problems in the 1970s. The closure of the mines triggered an economic stagnation. Large numbers of people became unemployed. In the meantime, the city developed into the country’s drugs capital. Slowly but surely, the Glaspaleis fell into disrepair.

During major renovations in 1973 and 1974, its characteristic transparent glass frontage was replaced by sun-resistant smoked glass windows in order to modernise the building. In addition, the architectural interior-exterior relationship underwent a fundamental makeover. The mezzanine in the main lobby was extended. In doing so, a whole new floor was created, but at the same time, it diminished the overall grandeur of the entrance hall. During the Eighties, the Glaspaleis retained its function as an office complex-cum-retail space, but over time, premises became vacant and blight set in. In the early Nineties, the now largely unoccupied building was designated for demolition.

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The central lobby of the Glaspaleis, with in-store retail units and an additional floor in the current mezzanine, 1995. Photograph: P. van Galen, Collectie Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed (object number 327.845).

Rescue from the wrecking ball in the 1990s

In response, a working group (Werkgroep Rehabilitatie Glaspaleis) was set up in 1993 to explore a new purpose for the building. They did their utmost to save the Glaspaleis and restore it to its former glory. It was thanks to the efforts of this group and the support of council executive Rene Seijben that the Glaspaleis was officially recognised as a national heritage site (Rijksmonument) in 1995. The municipality resolved to buy the building so that it could be restored to its original state and given a new purpose.

Architects Wiel Arets and Jo Coenen helped ensure that the building took on its present form and appearance. The original lift shaft, the arched windows near the main entrance, the windows in steel frames incorporating the smaller top-hung windows, the impressive bay window, and the extensive shop window frontage: they all had to preserved or reconstructed. The official re-opening of the Glaspaleis took place on 30 June 2004. This signalled the beginning of Heerlen’s so-called ‘cultural spring’ that the city had rediscovered.

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The fifth floor at the time of the renovation in 2001. The former roof garden, now Brasserie Mijnstreek. Photograph: Kris Roderburg, Collectie Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, object number 336.866

The new SCHUNCK

On 1 January 2009, the name SCHUNCK was reintroduced. The various organisations which were housed in the building were now brought together as part of a new cultural organisation. Today, SCHUNCK is a multidisciplinary cultural institution that accommodates a museum for modern and contemporary art and architecture, a public library and a school of music and dance. Residents of Heerlen and beyond can come here for cultural education, exhibitions, access to books and information, literacy, music and dance lessons and performances.

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The SCHUNCK letters being reinstalled on the outside of the building in 2009. Photograph: SCHUNCK

One of the 1,000 most important buildings of the 20th century

In 1999, the Glaspaleis was put on a list of the 1000 most important buildings of the 20th century, drawn up by the International Union of Architects.  In 2016, the building numbered amongst the ranks of other masterworks from the Nieuwe Bouwen period, such as the Rietveld house, the Zonnestraal sanatorium and the Van Nelle factory.

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Entrance of SCHUNCK in the Glaspaleis, 2019 (Photograph: Joep Jacobs).

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The Glaspaleis in 2021, at the time of the Landscape Works with Piet Oudolf & LOLA Landscape Architects exhibition. Photograph: Gert Jan van Rooij

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