Thursday, February 2, 2012

Colonial Dutch Architecture of Paramaribo

If you’re a fan of the natural world, wild places, or cultural heritage, you’ve likely visited a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The World Heritage list was created by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1972 to “encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.”

I seek out World Heritage Sites when traveling, as do hordes of tourists. So many, in fact, that sites now face additional pressures from visitors touching, looting, or sometimes just breathing on artifacts, not to mention poorly planned tourist development around sites. The travertine terraces of Pamukkale, Turkey is one example of many I’ve seen recently.

There are, however, a few remaining countries where you can find World Heritage sites free of tourists - good for you, if not the local country’s economy. One of these countries is Suriname, which has two UNESCO sites, one cultural and one natural. And both happen to be settings in my first mystery. The natural site is the Central Suriname Nature Reserve, although I use a different name for the park in my book.

The cultural site is historic Paramaribo, which became a World Heritage Site in 2002. The white timbered Dutch colonial buildings of the old city are a unique fusion of Dutch architecture from the 17th and 18th centuries with the indigenous cultures and tropical environment of the northeast "wild coast" of South America.

The original inhabitants of Suriname were Carib Indians along the mangrove coast, and Trío, Wayana, and Akuriyo Amerindians in the tropical rainforest interior. Paramaribo, the capital, was settled about ten miles inland from the coast, along the Suriname River. The French arrived first, followed by the English, who established sugar and tobacco plantations on the west bank. In the late 1600s, the Dutch swapped New Amsterdam (part of present-day New York) for the English territory in Suriname and remained until Suriname’s full independence in 1975. 

To work their plantations, the Dutch imported West Africans and later, with the abolition of slavery in the 1860s, indentured laborers from Indonesia, India, China, and Lebanon, creating a cultural and ethnic diversity reflected in the city’s present-day appearance, both old town and new.

Set against sun-dappled streets lined with grizzled mahoganies, the old town’s mostly clapboard buildings are simple and symmetrically uniform, likely due to the country’s abundance of tropical hardwoods and isolation from any grand cities. Doors and windows were usually matching and repeated on each story, with shutters and louvres painted dark green, and designed for the rainy, humid climate. The well-crafted, detailed designs and woodwork are a tradition still found among Suriname’s many talented wood carvers.

Bricks, in contrast to wood, were expensive and were used mainly for stoops and foundations, which were painted red, the color of Suriname’s dusty interior roads and tropical soils. Older roofs were high and steep due to the wooden shingles and leaves used for roofing materials, until two major fires in the early 1800s caused a switch to slate and baked roof tiles. As new roofing materials were introduced, such as galvanized zinc around 1870, roof shapes became less sloped.

Working in Paramaribo’s old town was a highlight of my two years living in Paramaribo, and I had a few favorite buildings, including the building housing Conservation International (above) and the Presidential Palace (below), with its white veranda and adjacent palm garden. I was also very fond of my own office with WWF, but I can't seem to find a photo. You can click here for more photos, maps, and videos of Paramaribo's historic old town.


  1. Wow, Edith, those buildings are magnificent! What a wonderful experience to see an example of this beautiful architecture every day for two years.

  2. What beautiful buildings. I love the fusion of local materials with the Dutch architecture. And the symmetry is fascinating. Did you take these photos?

  3. Thanks Alli and Patricia. Yes, I took the photos last time I was in Suriname.

  4. Amazing, especially that Conservation International building (an apropos name for the cultural site too). Are the interiors as interesting as the exteriors? You working at these gorgeous old buildings gives me a small thrill ... like when I first moved to D.C. and worked for a few months at a small think tank right behind the Supreme Court. The office was housed in a lovely, old row house---wood floors, a curved wooden kitchen counter (yes, we had a real kitchen), and a creaky staircase. It filled me with a sense of purpose to be there each day.

  5. Lovely buildings, Edith. It's great that they are protected by UNESCO, and along with the site a bit of history. How different is the Dutch Colonial architecture from the other styles in Suriname?

  6. Supriya and Heidi,
    The restored buildings are very pretty inside too. Lots of woodwork, which is popular in many Suriname homes. Most homes are built more for surviving the tropics and go up in stages as people have the money to build. They use concrete mostly and many homes are raised homes with a porch. Everyone has a wall and garden, and the yards are usually raked clean with small zenlike lines to prevent snake bites. They have some very deadly snakes in Suriname.