The Student Hotel Building’s Grim History
Everyday you walk past them, into them, around them without ever really looking at them. The buildings and places that constitute the beautiful city you currently study in. You might say you don’t need to notice the city, after all you are only passing though it, not staying. But are you aware of the rich history and culture, the amazing stories that you are missing? If you were aware of these stories, would that make you consider to just stop and look around you in Maastricht?
In this new series I want to explore Maastricht, look at these taken-for-granted spots and rediscover them. To give you a new outlook on the city and the stories it contains, hidden in plain sight. To begin this journey through this historical city I want to take it close to home. To some of your homes to be specific. The student hotel is able to house 378 students, all of them just passing through for a few years or even shorter. Living in an ‘iconic factory turned hotel’ as the student hotel calls it. It is most certainly iconic but to discover exactly how iconic we will have to dive into its often dark history.
The history of this building plays a part in the history of the Sphinx company, founded by Petrus Regout in 1826. He started with a crystal grinding factory, later adding a nail factory and after that ceramics, in the end however the company produced porcelains like toilets and sinks. If you walk into the student hotel today you might notice how they incorporated toilets into the hotel’s decorations. The Sphinx building in which the student hotel is housed spans all the way from the archway next to the pathé cinema to the student hotel on the right. This archway is the only thing left of the convent was demolished for the building’s construction. This massive historic building is called the Eiffel building, possibly in reference to the Eiffel tower because of the size. Construction began in 1927, not only was it massive in size, also in its impact. The Sphinx company basically put Maastricht on the map. Maastricht as it is today would not be without Petrus Regout, the first big industrial and one of the richest men in the Netherlands at the time. But is this building and the things that happened there really something we can be proud of?
The working conditions were far from good. This can be said of many factories of the time and still today. But some of the details certainly are shocking. In 1874 The Netherlands introduced a law forbidding child labour under the age of 12. In 1887 an investigation into the work in this factory exposed child labour (12-16 years old) on a large scale in the Sphinx factories. Although technically no laws were broken; the conditions under which these children worked were deplorable by anyone’s standards, even in that age. Diseases like tuberculosis, cholera and lead-poisoning ran amok. Extremely hot ovens, and long working hours were the order of the day. For many workers there was no getting away from this situation, they were lucky to have this job. Even when they weren’t working they were in the housing provided by the company, the state of which was equally as bad. These factors make it understandable why the factory was referred to as ‘het moordhol’ (the murder hole).
All of these and other factors led to strikes, especially by the women working in the factory. The biggest strike led by women was in 1895. Of all the workers, the women were the most vocal in this period, joining labour unions and other organisations. They were the ones to start the conversation on the horrible working conditions and meager, or often times even withheld wages. Even at the time, a writer for a local socialist paper noted that the fact that it were the women rising up was as remarkable, if not more, than the strike itself.
So, the next time you walk past this building, or go to a party on the rooftop bar remember where you are. A convent, a murder hole, a toilet factory, a place where diseases ruled and where women stood up and said enough: ‘We demand to be payed for our work and work in better conditions.’ So if you are one of the students lucky enough to live here, forget the massive student debt you’re in because of the expensive living situation. Instead focus on the reshaping that has taken place in the building, make this chapter in the history of the building a happier, brighter one than what came before.