Grand tour of the Apple retail palaces of Europe: Amsterdam

Photo: Apple

Shopping at Hirsch & Co. in its heyday

FORTUNE — Queen Emma of The Netherlands, who in 1879 married a man once described as “the greatest debauchee of the age,” used to buy her gowns in the building that now houses Apple’s (AAPL) retail presence in Amsterdam. So did her daughter, Queen Wilhelmina. And so did Wilhelmina’s daughter, Queen Juliana.

In its heyday, the building Leo Hirsch erected on the Leidseplein to bring high Parisian fashion to backwater Holland was “a temple of infinite bliss,” according to a contemporary press release, “a cathedral of earthly almost heavenly pleasures.”

The space was being used for art openings

The great wars of the 20th century were not kind to Hirsch & Co. The Nazis took over the building, killed its Jewish managers, and carted off the clothes. But it was the jeans-and-T-shirt fashions of 60s that finally did the company in. A bank and then a law firm moved into the old Hirsch building. The marble columns were torn out. By the time Apple negotiated its lease, the space was being used for art openings.

Today, the building is once more a vibrant retail space and something of a destination in busy Amsterdam — especially with students who like to park their bikes in front of its giant convex window and grab some free Wi-Fi.

“It’s the best Internet cafe in Amersterdam,” says Apple staffer Arun Gangadien, who took me on a tour and showed me the public WCs — a nice customer-relations touch.

The atrium. Click to enlarge.

It’s a huge store — Apple’s biggest in Europe, according to the company. It occupies two high-ceilinged floors, separated by a Steve Jobs-patented glass spiral staircase and softly lit by a two-story atrium.

I counted 67 display tables, not including the 30-stool Genius Bar on the second level that is reputed to be the longest in the world. In the atrium space alone there are nine tables filled with iPad minis set aside for public access to the Internet.

I did three separate traffic counts: at noon (5.3 per minute), 3 p.m. (10 per minute) and 6 p.m. (6 per minute), which is not bad for the day after Easter Monday. It’s almost as good as the Paris Opéra store on its busiest day (11 per minute on a Saturday).

In a snapshot count at 3 p.m., the iPhone tables on the street level were drawing the most interest (14 visitors), followed by iPads (5), Macs (4), iPods (3) and the Internet tables (3).

The world’s longest Genius Bar

The real action was upstairs, where between the Genius Bar and the tables set aside for configuration, startup, training, workshops and accessories I counted 69 customers.

A marketing manager named Ryan caught up with me in the afternoon to show off some of the features I would otherwise have missed. Because the space had been stripped of all the pre-war Hirsch & Co. details — including a grand staircase and the original three-story atrium — Apple had to reconstruct it all from scratch using historic photographs as reference.

The marble columns were reproduced in plaster. The brass and wrought-iron railings were hand-made by the same French company that did the balcony at Paris Opéra. Heating and cooling ducts are hidden in spaces in the ceiling whose width had to be carefully calibrated (too wide and they’d draw attention to themselves; too narrow, and they would hiss.)

He, like all the green-shirted Apple staffers I met (Tuesday was Earth Day), was justly proud of how Apple has brought the old royal fashion house back to life with good taste and some class.

I couldn’t help thinking: This is the kind of thing that happens when a company is sitting on $124 billion in tax-sheltered cash that can only be spent outside the U.S.

Opening day, March 3, 2012. Photo: Picasdre, Wikicommons
Photo: Apple

See also: Berlin and Paris.

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