Het Loo -- an `ugly ducking' restored in the NETHERLANDS.

THE Palace Het Loo, home of the legendary House of Orange since 1688, was a tourist attraction from the start. Visitors streamed in from miles around to gaze at its fountains, its garden, its graceful exterior. The fountains were a particular hit. Today we may take a fountain for granted, but back then, even Louis XIV of France -- the king who had everything -- had to make do at Versailles with jets of stagnant-smelling water pumped by horses.

At Het Loo clever engineers had a different system. The site was the lowest land in Apeldoorn, so fountains of piped-in fresh water flowed continuously down from the highlands -- to the amazement of Renaissance rubberneckers.

The royal family of the Netherlands used Het Loo as a palace from the days of William III (stadholder of the Netherlands and king of England) almost up to the time when the Dutch parliament made it a museum in 1969. From 1977 to 1984, it was closed for $81 million worth of renovation. The museum shows the relationship between the House of Orange and the history of the Netherlands, from William III to Queen Wilhelmina.

It is a grand restoration. The palace should be at the top of the Europe-bound visitor's list.

The exterior, in its brick simplicity, is very Dutch. It has been returned to its appearance in the late 17th century, when William III came here in summer to hunt boar and fight the French.

After Napoleon conquered Holland and installed his brother Louis at Het Loo, Louis painted the brick exterior white to make it look more French. Another story and black shutters were added later. The result had an institutional look.

Soil was thrown down to cover the fountains and parterres -- areas with wonderful abstract designs in boxwood and flowers -- so that a more modern garden could be planted on top.

Cultivated Renaissance people, for whom discussions of proportion were a favorite diversion, would cheer if they could see the movie today's visitors watch that explains the restoration process. In addition to footage about the history of the place, you get to see this ugly duckling turning into a swan, thanks to the army of restorers.

Het Loo leaves you exhausted, as all of the best museums do; it's an embarrassment of riches. Except for a few bare floors -- where carpets weren't mentioned in the old inventories -- no surface is without its tapestry or painting, silk wallpaper or pilaster; no chair is without its carving, no fireplace without its assemblage of blue-and-white vases and cachepots. But the effect is splendid, not cluttered.

The sequence of rooms is a bit confusing -- especially for those who have only a foggy notion of Dutch history -- because the furniture styles range from late Renaissance to late Victorian. Each room is dedicated to a member of the House of Orange, and rooms are in chronological order except for the apartments of William III and his wife, Mary Stuart, which are in their original location. The English-speaking visitor should be sure to obtain a booklet in English, as the information provided in the rooms themselves is in Dutch.

The entrance is through a hall of painted gray, faux (artificial) marble. One curator, A. M. Erkelens, points out not only that marbleizing is economical, but that ``you can have all things in the manner that you want.''

Be sure to pause in front of the portrait of William III, whose shrewd eyes cast a subtle sideways glance and whose face is framed by a flowing Louis XIV hairdo.

Many of the rooms feature damasks hanging loosely over bare walls. These are based on old records, according to Ms. Erkelens, who points out that ``before this time they used tapestries in houses. In a way, this is a kind of damask tapestry.''

Early inventories helped curators to discover the original colors in each room. To ascertain the quality -- which is exquisite -- they received permission from Queen Elizabeth II to study the damask at Great Britain's Hampton Court Palace. The room of William III has a brilliant orange tapestry, in honor of Orange, the original family principality in the south of France; the royal blue of the bed hangings represents the color of the House of Nassau, a family possession in Germany.

The public rooms are spacious, the private rooms smaller. Queen Mary Stuart's snuggery is no larger than a good-sized closet, but it has a charming fireplace bearing her collection of blue-and-white porcelain.

According to E. Elzenga, another curator, the restoration process at Het Loo was full of surprises. One was the discovery that the boards of the original trompe l'oeil ceilings had simply been turned over and painted on the other side, leaving the design intact. ``We [could have reconstructed] the whole house with the original paint, but we didn't have the furniture,'' Mr. Elzenga explains. The French Army took everything away in 1795, ``so this restoration is a combination of reconstruction and making compromises.''

Another surprise for restorers was to find that when they dug up the garden, the original fountains were still underneath. The garden is Dutch baroque, but it will remind visitors a lot of Versailles in its neatness, its pointed fir trees, its statues and colonnades, and in the elaborate whirling designs in boxwood, a sort of botanical marquetry.

Many of the statues are copies of those at Versailles. A notable difference, however, is that the parterres in the gardens are square, rather than elongated, which gives the garden an intimate feeling of enclosure, as opposed to the French preference for long vistas.

All of the present plantings would have been here at the end of the 17th century. Walter Harris, physician in the English court of King William III, wrote a book in which he gave a plant-by-plant description of the garden. He listed, among ``flowers which successfully blow according to the seasons of the year'': ranunculus, tulips, hyacinths, anemone, narcissus, summer poppies, gilliflowers, larks-heels, sunflower, Indian cresses, stock-rose, and marigolds.

The statue of Venus in the center of the garden was a tribute to Mary Stuart, says Elzenga, while the fountains symbolized the power of the king. Practical information

Apeldoorn is about 50 miles east of Amsterdam and can be reached by train or car.

Driving in Holland is easy, the roads excellent and well marked.

There are two exhibitions in the wings of the palace. One features heraldry and related objects. The other features paintings, prints, and documents. Both are open from 1 to 5 p.m.

The orientation movie is available in English on request, and tours are given in English as well as Dutch. There are also occasional concerts.

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