De National: A Monument Opening Once Again
Open Monuments Day is a unique opportunity to behold places you normally would not have access to or to rediscover spots and see them in a different light. One of the more fascinating stories of this year’s edition is that of a cinema called De National in Antwerp's 2060 district. Volunteers Pieterjan Braet and Benno Van Den Bogaert (House of film Klappei) show me around this newly discovered diamond in the rough and tell me about the history, present and future of De National.
“It’s Stefan De Virgilio from Filmhuis Klappei who discovered the theater last winter”, Benno tells me. “He was working on the roof when, out of curiosity, he decided to take a look through a window into the neighboring building”. Through a tiny hole in the projection chamber he managed to sneak a peek into the huge screening room of what used to be Cinema National. “The building belonged to a carpet trader, who installed a false ceiling and a false wall to fit the needs of his store,” Pieterjan explains, “so when you entered the shop, you could not see that you were standing in a cinema. Luckily the shopkeeper saw the beauty of the theatre and thought there was a good chance that at some point someone would want to do something with it again, so he tried not to change too much about it”.
Talking with the people from the neighbourhood gave them a lot of insight in the history of Cinema National. “The cinema opened its doors in 1918, so at the start it was mostly used for theatre,” Benno says, “it alternated between film, theatre and vaudeville. It was after World War II, when a lot of American movies started to come over to Europe that De National really became a movie house, playing almost exclusively American and Belgian films”. Sadly, due to competition from colour television and cable distribution, Cinema National had to close down in the early ‘70s and fell into oblivion.
Reviving a landmark
“It took us a couple of months to decide on what to do with the building, because it is a project not to be taken lightly,” Benno says. “We had a meeting with Paul Schyvens from De Roma who, with all his experience, put us on the right track.”
“We have a lot of ambition, but very little money,” Pieterjan adds, “In the next couple of months we need to work on getting funding from the government and possibly donations from the public”. He continues that public interest is high, and conditions are favorable, but as of now the future is still very unclear.
On September 10, Open Monuments Day, De National will open its doors for the first time (again) to the public. “We are really putting our focus on that day,” Benno says, “so people can find out about us and hopefully find the drive to make something of it”. “The goal is to show the people what has been hiding here and to show the building’s potential,” Pieterjan adds. “There will be guided tours and people can get food or drinks, so we can start collecting some money. It is also a chance to show politicians and potential sponsors that there is still a future for De National”.
“After Open Monuments Day we will be inviting contractors and architects to find out what the possibilities are,” Benno tells me. “And to get a better idea of the price tag to restore the glass ceiling, for example,” Pieterjan adds.
With an influx of money and volunteers, who knows, a hundred years after the cinema first opened its doors, De National can live once again as one of Antwerp’s landmark theatres.
Text by Jonah Simanjuntak
Pics by Benno Van Den Bogaert