The Preservation of Historical Buildings in Israel: An Old New Trend in Israeli Real Estate

Israel, although a modern country, is an ancient land.  There are many early sites going back thousands of years.  There are also many ancient cities such as Jerusalem, Acre, Jaffa (Yafo), Tiberius, Beer Sheva and Safed.  In addition to this, the return of the Jews to their homeland sparked the construction of many towns and cities.  These towns and cities were the cornerstones of the fledgling Jewish state to come. The preservation of historical buildings therefore includes the restoration of ancient cities and their adaptation for modern life and the conservation of historical buildings in modern cities.  In this article I will endeavor to touch upon conservation in the modern cities in general and specifically in Tel Aviv-Yafo (Jaffa).

Tel Aviv-Yafo is both an ancient city and a modern one.  The origins of the modern city of Tel Aviv begin with the ancient city of Yafo.   Although Tel Aviv as a city is only about 104 years old, the city of Yafo enjoys over 2000 years of history.  Yafo was mentioned in the Bible when King Solomon floated wood from Lebanon on rafts to the port of Yafo, taking them from there to Jerusalem to construct the first Temple.  The prophet Jonah fled to Yafo where he boarded a ship to Tarshish.  Since then the city has been captured many times.  In the past 215 years alone, it has passed from the Ottomans to the Egyptians, back to the Ottomans, to the French and back to the Ottomans  again.  After World War l the British ruled it until finally in 1948 it passed to Israeli rule.

In the second half of the 19th Century, several groups began to construct buildings outside the walls of the old city.  In 1866 the American Colony was founded by a group of Protestant Christians from Maine, USA.  Their settlement was unsuccessful and they sold their lands to a group of German settlers from Wittenberg who were also Protestant Christians.  They founded their settlement in 1868 by using some of the wooden prefabricated houses imported by the Americans and by building more structures of their own.    In 1871 another German colony, Sarona, was established on lands which can be located today near the AzrielliTowers.   

Seeing the success of the German Colonies, Jews began to plan the first Jewish settlements outside the walls of the old city of Yafo.  In 1887 a group of Jewish settlers established the neighborhood of Neve Tzedek on lands owned and bought from Aaron Shlush.  In the same year a group of investors, headed by Yaakov Navon, received permission to build a railway line from Yafo to Jerusalem.  The line was built by a French company and on September 26, 1892 the train made its maiden journey to Jerusalem.  Soon, other Jewish neighborhoods began to appear such as Neve Shalom, built by the wealthy Jewish businessman, Zerach Baranet, Machane Yosef and Shabazi.

Early in the 20th Century, another group of Jews from Yafo banded together and in 1909 began construction on what was to become the first neighborhood of Tel Aviv, Achuzat Bayit.  It is interesting to note that the founders of the neighborhood saw it as a suburb of Yafo.  They enacted strict rules for the planning of the neighborhood.  Each house was to be no more than two floors in height and was to have a garden in front and in the back with a certain amount of trees in each.  The most important rule was to be the prohibition of running businesses in the homes without specific permission from the committee of Achuzat Bayit.  Soon, other neighborhoods began to appear, the most prominent one being Nachalat Binyamin.  However, World War l temporarily cut short all plans for the city’s urban expansion as the Turks brutally expelled all Jews from Tel Aviv and Yafo.  Those that did not hold Ottoman citizenship were exiled and those that did hold Ottoman citizenship were sent north for the duration of the war.   The Jews returned to Tel Aviv after the capture of Palestine by the British Army.  During the British Mandate, Tel Aviv expanded in leaps and bounds.  In 1934 Tel Aviv was declared a city and in 1949 the municipalities of Tel Aviv and Yafo were united into one city called “Tel Aviv-Yafo”.

During this time many important historical buildings were constructed.  In Achuzat Bayit, the house of Meir Dizengoff, one of the founders and the first Mayor of Tel Aviv, was donated to the public after his death.  It is from this house that Israel was declared a state.  Today it is a museum.  The Eden Cinema, one of the first movie theaters in Israel was built on the edge of Achuzat Bayit.  One of the most impressive buildings built in Achuzat Bayit on the corner of Herzl and Ahad Ha’am Streets was the Gymnasia Herzliya.  This beautiful building played an important role in the lives of the inhabitants of Tel Aviv as it was one of the first high schools and a place of public meetings and events.  It was to this building that the bodies of Jews massacred in the Arab riots of 1921 were brought and from there were sent for burial.  In 1926, the well known Hebrew poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik immigrated to Israel and built his beautiful and impressive house in Tel Aviv.  In 1928, the Great Synagogue was constructed on Allenby Street.  In 1930, the Mugrabi theater opened for business and in 1936, the TelAvivPort was established.

The 1930s saw the arrival of many Jews fleeing Nazi Germany.  The architects among them, many of whom had learned the Bauhaus style of architecture, began to plan buildings in this style.  During the 1930’s and 1940’s a large number of Bauhaus buildings were built.  It is for this reason that Tel Aviv was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2003. 

Unfortunately, Tel Aviv’s star began to dim.  Large neighborhoods were built rapidly in order to make room for the large number of refugees who poured into the country from war torn Europe and the Arab countries.   Many historical buildings were destroyed, the most prominent among them being the beautiful Gymnasia Herzliya, which was demolished in order to make way for Migdal Shalom, the city’s first sky scraper. It wasn’t until the 1990’s that the Tel Aviv municipality began to make a concerted effort to preserve the heritage of the city.  A town plan was adopted in which 1600 buildings were declared historical.  These buildings cannot be demolished and their renovation is governed by strict rules.

Why do we need to preserve historical buildings? Why not just knock them down and build better, stronger and more modern buildings?  We conserve historical buildings and sites in order to teach our history to the world and to future generations.  We conserve historical buildings and sites because their architecture is a form of art and just as we protect works of art we should protect buildings of special architectural interest. 

Many sites tell stories that show our heritage and our history in this place.  The conservation of those sites saves our heritage for all time.  Therefore certain sites are slated for preservation above others including sites in which an historical event took place such as Dizengoff’s house where the State of Israel was declared.  Sites of local importance such as Yemin Moshe in Jerusalem also take precedence.  Sites that show a phenomenon of national importance such as the first moshavot are also preserved.  Sites that show a specific building culture such as buildings built in the Eclectic and Bauhaus styles in Tel Aviv are conserved.

We also preserve buildings that were the home of famous people such as the homes of Chaim Nachman Bialik, Reuben Rubin and Shimon Rokach in Tel Aviv.  The preservation of our historical sites and cities breathes life into our cities and urban centers.  It brings tourism and business and renewal to places that would otherwise have been dead.

There are different types of preservation.  In the preservation of a single house the house is not changed, just strengthened and renovated in the style and manner of the original structure. An example of this is the school building in Mikve Yisrael and another is the Pagoda House on Nachmani Street, Tel Aviv. When there is an entire site with a common denominator, it is all preserved despite the fact that the architecture of the houses may not be anything special. Examples of this are Neve Tzedek in Yafo, Nachalat Hashiva in Jerusalem  and Sarona in Tel Aviv. If the building is in such bad condition or has been demolished then a replica of the building or site may be constructed. To this end the illegal immigrant camp at Atlit was rebuilt.  Very often the façade of the building is preserved and the internal division and use are changed. This is what was done with the SuzanneDelalCenter in Neve Tzedek.  In some instances only a part of the façade is preserved or certain architectural items are preserved after the building has been destroyed. An example of this is the “Talita Kumi” façade erected outside the Hamashbir department store on King George Street, Jerusalem.  Another form of preservation is when the building is conserved but used for uses other than the original one such as the Eden Theater which is used to house Bank Leumi’s archives.  In many instances the site becomes a museum such as the site of Kfar Tavor.   Although many of the rules governing the conservation of historical buildings prohibit external changes to the building, allowances have been made as they were in the case of 96 Hayarkon Street and the house of Menachem Ushishkin which is located on the corner of Allenby and Hayarkon streets in Tel Aviv.

Upon reading this article one would think that the preservation of historical buildings and heritage sites has won the national consensus.  Unfortunately this could not be further from the truth.  Local conservationists are often forced to battle some land developers and even government authorities who have no interest in the preservation of our history and heritage because of the cost and time involved in the work of conservation.  To them it is easier to just tear it all down and build something new rather than conserve the historical building. This is of course true but as a people, we lose a lot more.   

Due to the lack of archaeological proof, there is a heated debate among archeologists as to whether or not King David and King Solomon really existed.  To many archaeologists the stories of King David and King Solomon are no more than myths – just like Zeus is a myth. If we do not want to be relegated to the level of a myth we must preserve our historical buildings, monuments, art and culture despite the economic cost.

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