What the story of one 400-year-old house in Amsterdam can tell us about today's housing market





In 1625, a carpenter named Pieter Fransz built a house on the outskirts of Amsterdam. He was young, ambitious and lucky enough to belong to one of history's greatest generations: his life spanned the course of his country's golden age, when tiny Holland became an empire and Amsterdam grew into Europe's wealthiest city. Fransz walked the streets with Rembrandt; he saw a forest of masts grow in the harbor, as ships returned from the East Indies laden with pepper and nutmeg, a sack of which could make a man wealthy for life. He and his family prospered along with the city; 17 years after building his house, he was rich enough to buy the one next door, into which his daughter and her husband moved. In 1683 he was still listed as the owner of both properties. Happiness isn't registered in municipal archives, but the image of this one not terribly consequential human life that remains on the palimpsest of time speaks of contentment: a man who has lived beyond the normal life span of his era, surrounded by family, financially successful.

Most of us leave no lasting traces that recall our stay on the planet, but through accident and fate, Fransz left something that has endured the centuries. His house — an elegant redbrick step-gable, its facade ornamented with sandstone bands and wooden cross-framed windows, a building that has more of the Renaissance than the Baroque about it — still stands. Napoleon and Hitler conquered Amsterdam in their separate centuries; later, postmodern architects and the sex and soft-drug industries made their marks. Pieter Fransz's house withstood all.

The Dutch have always been meticulous recordkeepers, so it is possible to follow this house, and others nearby it on Amsterdam's famous Herengracht, or Gentlemen's Canal, as they make their way through the centuries: to watch the succession of doctors, diamond cutters, confectioners, merchants and politicians move in and out, to glimpse the births and deaths, to watch careers and families unfold. More to the point, it's possible to follow the successive property transactions in this area of Amsterdam from the time it was developed to the present.

In itself, this isn't exceptional: other European cities have land registers that date to the Middle Ages. What makes Pieter Fransz's neighborhood unique — and uniquely interesting to some economists who are studying today's global real-estate boom and wondering whether the bubble that has been expanding for the past decade and more is in the process of bursting — is what real-estate experts call a constant quality index....




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