The story of Villa Augustus starts with a photograph.
It was taken from a small aeroplane. It must have been 1930 or thereabouts. Below him, the photogra-pher saw a patchwork quilt of rivers, harbours and strips of land. He was looking towards a tributary of the Biesbosch, edging the town. One strip of land contained a water tower, which was surrounded by water, like a castle. Centre of attention, majestic, unavoidably beautiful.
One day in 2003, the photograph appealed to the imagination. It was seen at the town hall by a number of entrepreneurial people. The water tower was vacant, awaiting a new raison d'être. For example as a hotel; imagine sleeping in a former storage room for water. The surrounding area, which used to be water, could be opened up once again. The River Vlij might be extended, restoring its old course. The new pump building next to it, which was built in 1942 and is therefore not visible in the photograph, would provide an ideal location for a restaurant and a Market Café.
From: The water towers of Dordrecht and Dubbeldam (for sale in the Market Café of Villa Augustus)
NEW PURPOSES FOR THE WATER TOWERs
The water tower next to the Wantij at the Oranjelaan no longer weeps. Water no longer leaks from the attic, through the round windows, nor trickles down the brick walls. The only water flowing on the fourth floor of the national monument is the hot and cold running water in the luxury bathrooms of the hotel rooms.
Thanks to the refreshing ideas of restorers and entrepreneurs, the tower was not demolished. On the contrary, it was renovated for its new start in life. The tower at the Wantij has become a part of a unique Dutch garden of Eden, with a restaurant, gardens, greenhouses, and the water tower that was turned into a hotel: Villa Augustus.
A WATER TOWER AT THE WANTIJ
On 31 January 1881, J.A. van der Kloes, director of the Public Works, and consulting engineer A.G. de Geus, presented their design for the 'High-pressure water mains in Dordrecht'. The project comprised the construction of a complex along the river, including clarification ponds and filtering basins to purify the water before it was pumped into the clean-water basements. And amidst these water basins, the drawings included a beautiful castle-like tower with a water reservoir: the Dordrecht Water Tower. The construction would cost 475,000 guilders. The operating costs would be 41,120 guilders per year if the people from Dordrecht would use one thousand cubic metres per day and 45,100 guilders if they would use two thousand cubic metres per day. This amount would be recovered by having the inhabitants pay rent for their water mains. Even then, the socialist range of ideas applied here – that the strongest shoulders should carry the heaviest loads. The most important question to be answered by the town was: where do we get the drinking water to be supplied by the water tower? Chemical research carried out in 1873 by dr. G. Post had demonstrated that the water in the Merwede, just outside of the 'Kop van de Staart', was cleanest. Van der Kloes and De Geus recommended to the municipality to have the water inlet and water tower constructed just there.
However, the council was not in favour of building anything there, since this area was rather poorly accessible at the time. Moreover, they considered the water from the Biesbosch, which flowed through the Wantij to the town, sufficiently clean. On 15 March 1881, the council decided to build and operate a 'High-pressure water mains' at the Wantij. Dordrecht would be drinking water from the Biesbosch, as this part of the Wantij was called at the time.
A MONUMENTAL WATER FACTORY
Van der Kloes himself designed the Dordrecht water tower. In later years, he would become a teacher at the Delft Polytechnic, the predecessor of the Technical University. His building at the Wantij is still highly commended by architects and has been declared a national monument. The construction was started in 1881 and the tower was finished in 1882. The director of the public works designed a tower with a height of 33 metres. It was a squarely-built construction with four octagonal towers surrounding a large, round water basin. Two towers accommodate a spiral staircase between the staff residences and reservoir. One of the towers contained the chimney for the smoke emanating from the steam engines pumping up the water from the basements to the reservoir. The fourth tower was intended as an outlet should the pressure inside the reservoir run up too high. The small towers were to disappear in 1938, when the reservoir was raised by means of a metal shaft. The tower's outline looks rather like a castle. Underneath the tower are the clean-water basements. At ground level, the machines were pumping up the water. The floors above contained five apartments for the operators. Above these was the leaking attic, just underneath the top reservoir. The round windows in this attic served as outlets for the water, should the reservoir have filled up too much. After the Oranjelaan was constructed, in 1908 and 1909, passers-by would look at the water trickling down the brick walls and say: "The water tower is weeping."
In 1882, the iron, round basin could hold some 500 cubic metres of water. Together with the ponds, the tower formed a water factory in which the water from the Wantij was purified before it was pumped into the mains network. The working conditions during the construction in 1881 and 1882 were tough. Because of the high water level in the rivers, the building site sank while it was being raised. As a result, the clarification ponds could not be dug to the required depth. Soon, the ponds proved to be too small. In spring of 1883, Van der Kloes and De Geus received criticism from a special committee. Although the construction eventually cost 535,000 guilders, 60,000 guilders over the budget, the committee reproached them for being too frugal. Possibly, this was why the water mains had too little capacity. Also, the water was probably not clean enough. The Dordrechtsche Courant published special supplements discussing the commotion at length. In an attempt to defend himself, van der Kloes referred to the bad weather conditions and the time pressure. On 1 November 1883, despite all delays, officially pure water flowed from the water tower to the houses in Dordrecht. Dordrecht now had its own drinking water company. The inscription on the side wall of the water tower refers to this memorable moment. It reads: