Het Steen, a medieval fortress in Antwerp, is one of the main tourists attractions of the Belgian port city. Het Steen or “the rock” was built between 1200 and 1225 as a gateway to the caste of the Dukes of Brabant, which was demolished in 19th century. These days, it is considered a hot spot for anyone wanting to visit the city.
Around the year 850, a first refuge castle was built, which was reinforced with an earthen wall as protection against the Normans. Around 1200-1225, Het Steen and the castle wall were erected. The building already served as a prison in the first quarter of the 14th century. In 1446, it was declared as a dilapidated structure by a commission set up by Philip the Good. The old castle wall was largely demolished in 1481, except for the part along the Scheldt which disappeared only in 1883 when the Scheldt bank was straightened.
In the first quarter of the 16th century, Charles V ordered the rebuilding of Het Steen, which took place around 1520 to the design of Domien de Waghemakere and Rombout II Keldermans. All that remained of the old building was the now remaining substructure of Tournai stone, which is clearly distinguishable from the early-16th-century sandstone superstructure. The old statue above the Stone Gate, representing the Scandinavian god of fertility Semini, was also preserved. The statue was mutilated by the Jesuits around 1587 but is still visible today. The Jesuits also created the niche above it for a statue of Our Lady around 1587, which disappeared during the French rule.
Charles V donated Het Steen in 1549 to the City of Antwerp, which owned it until 1828. The building continued to serve as a prison; During the Eighty Years’ War, the Spanish Inquisition was based there. Most of the torture and execution equipment was burned by the French in 1794. Het Steen remained prison until 1823, after which it served as a home for disabled soldiers until 1826. In 1827, the building was claimed by the Dutch government, which sold it to a lumberyard in 1828.
In 1842, the City of Antwerp bought the building back. The cellars were used as storage for fish, while several families occupied the superstructure. In 1862, the building was repurposed as the Museum of Antiquities. After being adapted to this function, the Steen was opened to the public in 1864.
In the 1880s, it was dismantled to allow the straightening of the Scheldt quays. All adjacent streets and houses disappeared, including the Prison Street and the Steen Street, and Het Steen itself was also threatened with demolition. It was saved because its location between the planned quay and railroad did not hinder the construction of the quays. It became isolated from the remaining part of the old city center.
In 1887-1890, Het Steen was substantially restored, rebuilt and extended with a new north wing in neo-Gothic and neo-traditional style, designed by the architects Joseph Schadde and Ferdinand Truyman, and city architect Gustave Royers.
In 1952, the Antiquities Museum changed to the National Maritime Museum, and the following year the building was closed for remodeling work, which lasted from 1953 to 1957. The western portion of the 1887-1890 north wing gave way to a low contemporary museum wing in brick construction. In 1955-1956, an archaeological soil survey was also conducted in the center of the original castle, revealing remains of dwelling houses, yard and stacks, in five successive levels, dating from about 850 to 1200. Starting in late 1963, the 16th-century gate and the Burgundian chapel above it were rebuilt in their original state.
The National Maritime Museum closed its doors in 2008, after which its collections found shelter in the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS). A memorial to the Canadian soldiers in World War II was added.
These days, Het Steen consists of visitor center, a cruise terminal as well as the “Antwerp Story”, an interactive museum dedicated to the city and port. According to Belga news agency, tourists can climb the roof terrace for an unusual view of the Scheldt river and the old town.