Sat, 09 Dec 2000

Clubhouse Harmonie now a parking lot

By Ida Indawati Khouw

Batavia once had the oldest clubhouse in Asia, Societeit de Harmonie. Although the building has been demolished, its romance still remains. This 68th article on Batavia looks into its good old days.

JAKARTA (JP): The 1985 Jl. Majapahit road expansion project took its toll on one of the city's remaining historical buildings, Societeit de Harmonie.

The building, billed as Asia's oldest, has disappeared from the city map but the area has retained its name. The Harmoni intersection near the presidential palace in Central Jakarta is one of Jakarta's best-known landmarks.

The name "Harmoni" was derived from the grand clubhouse Societiet de Harmonie, a social club located right at the corner of the present-day Jl. Veteran and Jl. Majapahit (they were called Rijswijk and Rijswijkstraat respectively during the Dutch colonial era) in Central Jakarta.

Those who were familiar with the white building agree that it was beautiful. The demolition of the Empire style building had sparked widespread condemnation.

The government expanded Jl. Majapahit as this street, which is close to important government offices and the Kota trading center, could no longer accommodate the increasing traffic. The Harmoni intersection was a converging point of six streets.

The idea to build a place for social gathering for Europeans had existed for a long time. In the 1700s the only place to socialize was drinking houses that served various liquors.

But respectable people did not like those places; they would rather organize dancing parties at home and hire amateur musicians.

The first societeit or public get-together house ever built in Batavia was at Buiten Nieuwpoorstraat, now Jl. Pintu Besar Selatan in West Jakarta, in the early 19th century.

In 1810, Governor General Herman Willem Daendels, notorious for his iron-gloved rules, ordered Major Schultze, who had designed "Daendels" palace at Waterlooplein (the area where the office of the Ministry of Finance at Lapangan Banteng in Central Jakarta now stands), to design the grand clubhouse.

Daendels was a man who thought and acted fast. He realized that there were no funds to build a new clubhouse. So he ordered the Weeskamer or the Probate Court to provide a loan while the materials were taken from dismantled walls.

In addition to providing an attractive clubhouse for Europeans, the governor general also wanted to reduce the influence of secret societies like the Freemasonry (see also Save Old Batavia at The Jakarta Post's Aug. 19, 2000 edition), which he regarded as "nests of conspiracy".

It was also part of his grand plan to relocate the administrative center of Batavia to the southern district of Weltevreden (now an area in Central Jakarta), said writer Scott Merrillees.

"The construction of the clubhouse was tendered. On March 31, 1810, a contract was awarded which stipulated that the project would cost 105,000 rijksdaalders and that the construction was to be completed within 15 months," Merrillees said in his book Batavia in the Nineteenth Century Photographs.

However, Daendels could not see the completion of the building due to the political and economic turmoil at the time, which included the French being driven out of Java after the British attacked Batavia in Aug 1811, combined with a severe devaluation of the currency and the subsequent difficulties in obtaining building materials and labor. This meant that construction couldn't be completed on schedule or in line with the budget. Work on the project was suspended for several months.

The construction of the clubhouse was then overseen by the new British Lieutenant-Governor of Java Thomas Stamford Raffles. The job was again tendered with a revised construction cost of 360,000 rijksdaalders, said Merrillees.

Actually, the building was very meaningful for Indonesians, an expert on old buildings, Adolf Heuken, said, because it was constructed by a Malay contractor Abdul Hamied after winning the contract. Three Chinese contractors who had also tendered for the job, lost the bid although they were very much in demand at that time.

" Winning the bid for the construction of the building was very significant at that time, and Hamied's fine work lasted almost 200 years," Heuken said, adding that it was the oldest clubhouse in Asia.

By late 1814 the construction had been completed and on Jan. 18, 1815, the Harmonie was officially opened.

The date of the official opening of the new Harmonie clubhouse was chosen to coincide with the official birthday of Queen Charlotte, wife of the then British King George III.

"A grand ball and supper were held to mark the occasion. Great festivities were no doubt enjoyed in the main rooms of the clubhouse," Merrillees said.

But a different version was given by Heuken. He said that it was opened in August 1814.

The building not only functioned as a clubhouse because Raffles placed collections from the museum and library of the Batavian Society of Arts and Science at the building's annex.

Harmonie had been the site of several historical events and of pompous festivities of the colonial high society. G. Windsor Earl, who visited Harmonie in the early thirties of the last century, wrote in his book The Eastern Seas:

"The evenings in Harmonie are spent in conversation or in playing cards and billiards, and it is perhaps more frequented by the gentlemen, from their having little intellectual amusement at home."

City residents who wanted to be someone in social circles had to apply for membership and no high officials wasted such opportunities. One of the patrons of Harmonie was the governor general himself.

However, not all occasions which took place at Harmonie were of the "highest levels".

In 1828 for instance, a Kermis or a Dutch-style annual fair was held there.

Harmonie was also where the 250th anniversary of the city of Batavia was celebrated on May 29, 1869. The Dutch captured the city in 1619, when it was called Jayakarta, and renamed it Batavia.

But not all that took place at Harmonie were pleasant. An incident took place around 1870, during a monthly party where members are permitted to be accompanied by their wives.

The party had just ended when two drunken Dutchmen arrived in two horse-drawn carriages in the company of two indigenous ladies.

There was a brief brawl when the younger club members, who were still at the clubhouse after the party, tried to prevent the two men from Buitenzorg (the present Bogor in West Java) from entering the clubhouse.

Harmonie was also the place where indigenous Indonesians experienced racial discrimination. Expert on old buildings Sudarmadji Damais once recalled how his French father could not bring his wife to drink there only because she was an indigenous Indonesian.

The clubhouse's site is now a park and parking lot of the State Secretariat office.

"There were no other alternative (than to demolish the Harmonie building) to settle the traffic problem at that time," Damais said.