A century of ‘imagination and astonishment’ at the Bijlhouwerstraat

By Armand Heijnen

Foto uit de negentiende eeuw van de bijlhouwerstraat
The Physics Laboratory, ca. 1876 or 1877. Source: C. Marcussen, collection Het Utrechts Archief.

The facade of Bijlhouwerstraat 6 hosts a plaque with the words: ‘This stone was laid by Hadassa Ornstein, 8 June 1922’. The stone marks the date exactly 100 years ago when builders began work on the expansion of the Physics Laboratory, the monumental building that is currently home to the Utrecht University School of Governance.

Hadassa Ornstein (1917-1978) was the daughter of Dr. Leonard Salomon Ornstein, Professor of Experimental Physics and Director of the Physics Laboratory, under whose leadership the lab was expanded by joining together the buildings at Bijlhouwerstraat 6 and 8.

Rijkswaterstaat had built Bijlhouwerstraat 8 for Utrecht University in 1875. The architect and Director of Utrecht’s Municipal Works, F.J. Nieuwenhuis, constructed the neoclassicist building on the former city wall at the request of the renowned physicist and meteorologist C.H.D. Buys Ballot. That building had in turn been expanded by the addition of an extra floor and two neoclassicist bays in 1915. 

Bouwtekening van het Physisch Laboratorium uit 1875
Elevation of the façade (north) of the design for the Physics Laboratory by architect F.J. Nieuwenhuis, ca. 1875. Source: collection Het Utrechts Archief.
Portret uit 1864 van Buys Ballot
Professor C.H.D. Buys Ballot, ca. 1864. Source: collection Het Utrechts Archief.


The facade of Bijlhouwerstraat 8 still features the cornerstone laid by Buys Ballot on 8 November 1875. As early as 1868, he had expressed the need for a new laboratory, even though he rarely conducted physics experiments and was seldom seen inside the new lab. He left the hands-on experimentation to his assistant, W.H. Julius, who was later promoted to full professor as well. Buys Ballot was drawn more towards meteorology, and had already set up an observatory at the Sonnenborgh bulwark in 1848 - the predecessor of today’s KNMI.

The late 19th century saw a dramatic increase in the number of natural sciences students, in part due to the successful introduction of the HBS school in 1863, which made higher education accessible to a wider group of secondary school students. And all of those new students needed to attend laboratory classes. The Physics Laboratory also held a collection of instruments that had been used over the previous three centuries to study air, gas, heat, sound, light, electricity, weather and the stars, as well as 19th-century innovations like photography (Daguerre), telephony, telegraphy and steam power. The collection would later serve as the foundation for the University Museum.

Medewerkers bij het vervaardigen van een transportabele Wilsonkamer.
Interior of the Physics Laboratory: workers making a transportable Wilson chamber, ca. 1937. Source: collection Het Utrechts Archief


These developments created an ever-growing need for laboratory space. Buys Ballot’s old laboratory was bursting at the seams, and an expansion was desperately needed. Ornstein’s building programme was the climax of that expansion. Under his guidance, the laboratory changed from a stuffy, introverted institute to one that was far more outward-looking. Ornstein made contacts with the industry and business, which made him one of the most important initiators of what would later be known as the ‘third cash flow’ of external funding. He also laid the foundations for the applied research foundation TNO, which was founded in 1930, and conducted research commissioned by organisations such as the KEMA certification firm, the Dutch Railways and several government ministries. The funding for the expansion at the Bijlhouwerstraat came from the national government and the university’s administrators at the time - the College of Curators. Both the public and private partners shared an interest in collaboration with social institutions. The businesses also offered graduates and PhDs jobs in physics-related fields. Ornstein supervised no less than 94 PhD candidates, and finding employment for them was a high priority during the Great Depression and its attendant high unemployment rates.

Leonard Ornstein geeft les aan een klas studenten.
Professor Ornstein teaching in the large lecture hall of the Physics Laboratory, ca. 1937. Source: collection Het Utrechts Archief.
Leonard Ornstein zit aan zijn kantoortafel.
Professor Leonard Ornstein in his office, ca. 1937. Source: collection Het Utrechts Archief.

In 1940, the German occupiers denied Leonard Ornstein entrance to his own laboratory due to the fact that he was Jewish. That caused him so much sadness that he died of a heart attack less than a year later. Both the staff and the students were deeply moved by Ornstein’s tragic fate. The Utrecht Student Corps declared a period of mourning and flew their flag at half-staff, and Professor of Astronomy Marcel Minnaert wrote a long In Memoriam.


After the war, scientific specialisation grew apace with the number of students. The 1960s saw especially pronounced growth, and the university’s housing in the city centre no longer offered enough space. So the university had to move to the Johannapolder on the outskirts of Utrecht, where the Uithof campus and later Utrecht Science Park would eventually rise out of the mud. The Bijlhouwerstraat could no longer house the many research groups created after WWII: Nuclear Physics, High Energy Physics, Fundamental Physics, Atomic and Molecular Physics, Physics and Chemistry of Solids, Biophysics, Medical and Physiological Physics, Physical Fluctuation Phenomena, Technical Physics and Physics Education. So between 1963 and 1973 the entire Faculty of Physics and Astronomy moved to the Uithof campus. The faculty’s first home was Trans I (the Martinus van Ruppert building), and then buildings at Princetonplein, before moving to the Buys Ballot building, the Minnaert building and the Ornstein Laboratory.

The old Physics Laboratory then served as a temporary home to a variety of university departments and units. For example, the Institute for Social Medicine was housed there until its permanent home in the Stratenum at the Uithof was completed. The former Instituut voor pedagogische en andragogische wetenschappen (IPAW) used the building for its pre-graduate curriculum until the social sciences faculty could move to the Langeveld building. The James Boswell Institute for tutoring and language education was also located in the building for a time, and the cellar held the University Museum’s Dentistry - Instruments and Dentist Chairs collection.

Foto uit 1986, een groep studenten staat om een patient op een tafel heen.
Heart and lung research in the Physics Laboratory, ca. 1968. Source: L.H. Hofland, collection Het Utrechts Archief.

Utrecht University School of Governance

In academic year 1998-1999, former Board President Jan Veldhuis asked professors Mark Bovens and Paul Verweel to set up a Public Administration and Organisation Science study programme in parallel to the Economics programme that was being set up at the same time. The board was of the opinion that a classical university with a full course curriculum should offer both study programmes. The Faculty of Law at the time had a Centre for Policy and Management (CBM), but it only offered education for professionals, not a full study programme. Verweel (Director of the CBM) and Bovens (from the University of Leiden) demanded that it would be a small-scale study programme, housed in its own building where staff and students could come together – and preferably not at the Uithof campus on the edge of town.

To ensure the small scale of the programme, enrolment was limited to 90 students. The Physics Laboratory was an early candidate for housing, after the Economics study programme turned it down in preference for a home at the University College campus in the old Kromhout Army Barracks. By then, the building at the Bijlhouwerstraat was in extremely run-down condition, but the new study programme nevertheless got to work in September 2000. The student association Perikles was born a year later.

Front view of Bijlhouwerstraat 6
Bijlhouwerstraat now houses USBO.

Alice in Wonderland

The James Boswell Institute was still occupying the top floor at the time and the dentist’s chairs were still stored in the cellar, but builders soon began work on a thorough renovation.  The 10 or so staff members of the Utrecht University School of Governance (USBO) had to teach classes amid the dirt and din of the building site. But under the leadership of Aryan Sikkema, the university’s Housing department wanted to make something special out of the building, with full consideration for the wishes of the ‘founding fathers’ Bovens and Verweel.

The focus of the interior design was a restaurant, around which all of the employee offices and classrooms were located. The seminar groups were limited to a maximum of 25 students, who received guidance from a single lecturer for the entire academic year. Interior architects Workshop of Wonders found inspiration in Alice in Wonderland for the interior design – the idea that one can ‘find your own way through an unknown world through imagination and astonishment’. The glazed sliding walls make the classrooms transparent. The dominant colour motif is green, and the walls are decorated with lines from Alice in Wonderland and the work of famous photographers. Buys Ballot’s old office in room 0.20 features a photo exhibit of the renovation work. The building was also fitted with its own ICT network, eliminating the need for dedicated computer rooms and allowing people to use laptops in every classroom – a novelty at the time.

Inspired by Alice in Wonderland. Photo: Harold van de Kamp


The study programme is still limited to a maximum enrolment of 90 students, but the building has begun to feel a bit cramped over the years. The total number of students has grown, as the programme now serves a large population of Master’s students. The staff has also grown 14-fold to around 120 employees. Voices have therefore been raised in favour of moving part of USBO elsewhere, in spite of objections that such a move would harm the desired unity of the study programme. One alternative would be to move the entire study programme, but people have grown so attached to the Physics Laboratory that such a move is hard to imagine. Only the future knows what it has in store for the monumental building on the Bijlhouwerstraat.

The Physics Laboratory, from construction till 2022. Source: C. Marcussen, collection Het Utrechts Archief, and Harold van de Kamp.

Een foto uit 1922 waar een groep mensen toekijkt terwijl de eerste steen van het gebouw wordt gelegd.

On 8 June 2022, the anniversary was commemorated with invited guests with presentations on the life of Prof. Ornstein and the history of the building. A class of primary school pupils from the neighbourhood, the same age as Hadassa Ornstein in 1922, symbolically laid a stone.

News: Utrecht University celebrates centenary stone-laying ceremony at Bijlhouwerstraat