ROTTERDAM, the Netherlands — They came from Russia, Poland, Germany and Ukraine, bearing tickets bought in the field offices of the Holland America Line passenger ships. They were fleeing the pogroms, escaping tyrants, running from war or just seeking a better life. About two million people made their way to Rotterdam harbor during the peak years from 1880 to 1920 to begin a trans-Atlantic journey that would often end at Ellis Island.
The stories of these migrants inspired the former Rijksmuseum director, Wim Pijbes, and the group he leads, Stichting Droom en Daad (Foundation Dream and Do), to transform a crumbling warehouse on the Rotterdam piers into a kind of Dutch sister-site to Ellis Island. The nonprofit organization he directs, founded in 2016 to support arts in Rotterdam, acquired a city permit in March to turn the old Holland America Line warehouse into an institution that will commemorate those journeys.
“I won’t call it a museum,” Mr. Pijbes said recently as he showed a reporter around the 108,000-square-foot concrete and steel building on a windswept pier, which is home to a number of ragtag hipster start-ups, including an organic food court, galleries and arts groups. “A museum is a phenomenon that has a very strict idea and image in most people’s minds. I want to find a word that has a kind of hybrid function, a place, a platform, an agora.”
The new multiuse facility, called the Fenix, will include restaurants, shops and galleries on the ground floor, while the entire top floor will be devoted to exhibitions related to immigration, past and present.
In 2020, when their leases expire, the current shops and businesses will move out to make way for renovation, which is expected to cost upward of 5 million euros ($6.14 million), though some will return.
“Culturally and historically, this will be of amazing value for the city,” Ahmed Aboutaleb, the mayor, said of the Fenix project, adding that it would serve as “a bridge” between the north and south sides of Rotterdam.
Through a partnership with several local museums and the Rotterdam City Archives, the exhibition space will combine historical presentations, based on three million records related to the immigrants who passed through here, and ship data, along with contemporary art.
Mr. Pijbes said he would like to show the Mexican artist and filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s high-tech art installation “Carne y Arena (Virtually Present, Physically Invisible)” (2017), which allows one visitor at a time to experience crossing the United States-Mexico border in the desert, through virtual reality.
“What we want to show is that this is a universal story,” Mr. Pijbes said. “People at some point of their lives make a decision, whether it’s forced by war, poverty, religious reasons or something else. They decide to put everything they have into one or two suitcases and to make this journey to a new world and start all over again. The same thing happens to Jews from Russia and people from African continents crossing the Mediterranean, or Syrians fleeing the war. What we want to do is to understand the emotion and to show the emotion.”
Hundreds of thousands of those who left through Rotterdam were victims of pogroms, anti-Semitic riots that swept the Russian Empire, killing thousands and propelling mass Jewish migration. But among the 3.5 million people who took the Holland America Line from its inception in the 1870s to the 1960s, when air travel became significantly cheaper, were every conceivable kind of immigrant.
Mr. Pijbes intends to make the passenger lists, and details about those who traveled, available to the public online within a couple of years, before the Fenix opens.
The Holland-America Line built what was said at the time to be the largest warehouse in the world on this pier in 1923, using it as a passenger terminal and goods transport center, according to Droom en Daad. In those days, some 2,000 to 4,000 people would board a single ship — first steamers and later ocean liners — for the weekslong voyage to the United States or Halifax, Nova Scotia, with poorer émigrés cramming into steerage and the wealthier passengers banqueting in first class.
An entire industry sprang up around the travelers who passed through this port, to house them, provide them with papers and check them for diseases like rheumatic fever and trachoma (pink eye) that would prevent their entering the United States.
Rotterdam was heavily bombed by German forces before the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands in 1940 and again as the Germans retreated, hoping to cut off Allied access to supplies.
The warehouse was blown up with dynamite, but rebuilt at half the size after the war. It was named the Fenix, or phoenix, rising from the ashes.
Today, large ocean liners dock at these piers, and glass office towers dwarf the Art Deco building, once the tallest at the harbor, that had served as the headquarters of the Holland America Line (now the charmingly historic Hotel New York).
“It takes more than a hundred years to rebuild a city that has been bombed to the ground,” Mr. Pijbes said. “You see now in places like Syria and Iraq what happened here.
“If you see the city as a body, what happens to the body is a trauma. What people tend to do when they have a very serious trauma is to turn their back on it. The people from Rotterdam did not look back in history. Don’t think about the past, they said, look at the future.”
But Mr. Pijbes said that his foundation felt it was time to look back, because the history of Rotterdam was rich and fascinating.
Mr. Pijbes served as the general director of the Rijksmuseum, the Dutch national museum, for eight years before he stepped down in 2016 to run the Museum Voorlinden, a private contemporary art center in Wassenaar founded by a chemical company executive and art collector, Joop van Caldenborgh.
The Voorlinden job lasted only a few months.
Soon afterward, Mr. Pijbes said, he was approached by the Van der Vorms, one of the wealthiest families in the Netherlands, who asked him to establish a foundation devoted to Rotterdam-based cultural activities and projects.
The Van der Vorms owned shares in the Holland America Line from the 1930s until it was sold to the American Carnival Corporation in 1989, but this project was not born of that connection, Mr. Pijbes said.
After spending about a year meeting with some 200 Rotterdam-based artists, architects, developers and city leaders, Droom en Daad settled on the Fenix as its first major undertaking.
“If you go to Amsterdam or Leiden or Delft, you go to the city center, and you see the Middle Ages and you see the 17th century and the 19th century, you see history,” Mr. Pijbes said. “In Rotterdam, you have history, but you can’t see it physically. Everything that is built in the city center was built after 1950. There’s a lack of history. There’s a gap in the memory.
“Our goal is to fill that gap, or refill that gap, by focusing on culture and heritage.”