The story of the wharfs in Utrecht starts with the digging of the canals, around the year 1100 AD. The ground excavated was used to raise the sides of the canal, to reduce the chance of flooding. When the city’s system of locks was finished in 1275 the water level was constant, enabling the creation of permanently dry cellars and new quays at water level, hence the typical wharfs (Dutch: werven) below street level. The quays were (and are still) at the same level as the cellars of the canal houses. Merchands who stored their belongings on the quays or wharfs started digging a tunnel from the wharf to their houses underneath the roads. The wharfcellars so grew as an initiative of inhabitants of the city to create storage for their goods. Slowly but surely all these cellars were locked with a fence or with a wall and door, how we get to the wharfs we see today. This process of building was finished around the year 1500 when al wharfs in the city Utrecht, along the ca 4 km long canal system, had their own cellars on both sides of the canals. Since this was an initiative of local owners, every cellar is unique, not one the same.
At the end of the 19th century, when transport over land became overhand more important, the wharfs felt in disuse, lost their function. With this they got into decline. Right after WWII society urged for refurbishment of the quays. This was very difficult because lots of owners were involved with different interests. The local authority decided to buy all wharfs and quay walls, not the cellars behind it. In 1949 project was started to refurbish the wharfs and quay walls. This project was finished in 1979 with the removal of all kinds of fences that had separated the different sections of different owners.
The image of the city changed dramatically with that intervention. For the first time in all those centuries a public street along the canal at water level was created. This meant that people could enter the wharfs and use them as public space. With the refurbishment of the wharfs and quay walls the job was not finished. Also the wharf cellars needed refurbishment. to resolve this problem, the local authority made an alliance with the owners in 1993. A start was made to the refurbishment and making the cellars waterproof. In the following nine years almost all of the about 700 cellars were refurbished!
At this very moment the cellars serve as space for restaurants, musea, brewers, and other kinds of public spaces (in the picture a flex office).