allenby - Eliakim Architects - February 15 2011
The plan for the building, which will become residential. Only the facade will remain. Photo by Eliakim Architects
Text size
David Bachar
Allenby 58 as it looks today. The building has undergone several incarnations. Photo by David Bachar
Courtesy
Tel Aviv's Allenby Street. Photo by Courtesy
Alex Levac
Club owner Uri Stark. Photo by Alex Levac

The life cycle of the building at 58 Allenby Street in Tel Aviv, with its glory days and its bleaker days, is a microcosm of trends and fashions that have affected the city from the 1930s to today.

As a movie theater built in 1937, it integrated well into the inhabitants' leisure lives and became an architectural icon on what was once Tel Aviv's main drag for shopping and entertainment.

In the 1980s, it was abandoned as part of the movie theaters' migration to large shopping centers and for a short time it screened pornographic films. In the 1990s the Allenby Cinema became a pioneering club that entirely turned around the nightlife scene and attracted the best DJs from all over the world.

Its regrettable closure in 2000 marked the beginning of a more rowdy reality for Allenby's party-goers.

Now, in its current incarnation, 58 Allenby is expected to become a residential building as the real estate market continues to heat up, especially in Tel Aviv.

The plan, which is published here for the first time, is by architect Tzadik Eliakim, who has been involved in the past in a number of preservation projects in Tel Aviv, among them buildings on Rothschild Boulevard.

The building was purchased four years ago by the Meir Aine Israel company, which belongs to Jewish businessmen from Morocco, for NIS 20 million. After examining a number of alternatives, "among them a cinema, offices and a boutique hotel," according to Eliakim, they decided to repurpose it for residential use.

The building has indeed been listed for preservation, but is ranked at Grade 3 - the lowest. Therefore the developers have quite a free hand in the new planning. It will include, in fact, only the original shell of the building, without the original internal spaces and without any trace of its historical uses as a cinema and a club.

A dramatic exception

The Allenby Cinema was planned by Shlomo Gepstein, an Odessa-born architect and journalist who immigrated to Palestine in the mid-1920s.

In the book "Dwelling on the Dunes," which surveys International Style architecture in Tel Aviv, Nitza Szmuck wrote that a simple line and the modesty, sometimes even asceticism, characterizes most of his buildings from the early 1930s. She mentions the Allenby Cinema positively as an "exception" with a dramatic presence felt on the street to this day.

Gepstein planned a handsome building in the stylistic and functional spirit of the times. The ground floor was originally intended to serve as a lobby but a year after the building was opened it was transformed into shops and the famous Hephzibah Cafe was located there. The main entrance was relocated to the southern facade and separated from the commercial area; today it is hidden by a later addition to the building.

The main movie theater - which was initially called Rimon - was especially large and included a balcony. From the outside it is possible to identify marked characteristics of the International Style - the ribbon of narrow horizontal windows and the "thermometer" window following the staircase and next to it a narrow pillar giving it vertical emphasis.

The original plan was modified several times and a story was added to the building Gepstein planned.

As part of the renovation, the building will be restored to its original configuration, without the additional story. The later building additions will be removed and the ribbon windows, which have been blocked up over the years, will be opened.

In the discourse of preservation there is frequent discussion of the question of which previous condition a building should be preserved at. In this case they have chosen the original state - which some might call overly pretty or romantic - that in fact existed just for just one year at the end of the 1930s.

The new interior will consist of 35 apartments averaging 50 square meters in area and one large penthouse spreading over the entire sixth floor. Beneath the surface, five parking levels will be excavated for a total of 80 spaces. Some of them will also be open to the general public.

There will also be a new wing built onto the building, located on the west in the direction the Kerem Hateimanim neighborhood. This is a metal and glass construction that looks like a kind of banana from above. Eliakim explains that it embraces the original structure and serves as a background to it.

"The people who pass by on Allenby Street will see the movie theater and less so the addition," he says.

Because of the box-like character of the building and the constraints of preservation, the apartments will have only one facade. In the center there will be a core of elevators, staircases and reinforced spaces that will serve the tenants as small exercise rooms.

Dance nation

"Allenby was an amazing space for a club. It was very extraordinary in its size and height and in the mid-90s it was a huge deal to make a club inside a cinema," recalled one of the owners of the Allenby 58 club, Rel Nadel, this week. "We fell in love with the place, we felt something amazing was happening on Sheinkin, King George and Allenby (Streets ) and we were looking for our way to become part of that. Because it was mostly a street of shops, we didn't think we would have problems with the neighbors."

Nadel, together with nightlife stalwart Uri Stark and other owners, opened the club on New Year's Eve of 1994. Without knowing it, they were becoming part of a local and international trend towards converting abandoned cinemas (and, abroad, churches as well ) into huge clubs in the downtowns of cities. Allenby 58 was a tremendous success and within a few years it was crowned by the magazine Ministry of Sound as one of the 20 best clubs in the world.

Stark and Nadel recall the days of the "dance nation" that developed at the club, the vampire nights that attracted people who had invested in special and colorful costumes, leading musicians visiting from abroad (including Boy George and DJ Sasha ), Shimon Shirazi's after-parties and of course Ecstasy (the drug MDMA ), which was an integral part of the club scene.

After six successful years of activity the club was shut down. The Tel Aviv municipality formulated a policy of establishing entertainment zones outside the center of the city and at the same time a number of other clubs were opened in Tel Aviv, raising competition. Shortly after the closure, Nadel and Stark inaugurated the TLV club at the Tel Aviv port, a direct heir to Allenby 58's wild nights.

Keep the culture

The approaching renovation of the building is not being welcomed on all sides. Many people who used to visit the Allenby 58 club believe it should be maintained as a municipal institution, perhaps with some connection to clubbing culture, and not turned into yet another apartment building. The previous owners tried in the past to sell the building to the municipality, but to no avail.

"Personally, I love the fact that there are ruins in Tel Aviv because I love cities that aren't totally controlled. It's fun to walk past the Allenby Cinema and think about the ghosts coming out of there," said Nissan Shorr, author of the book (in Hebrew ) "Dancing with Tears in Our Eyes," a history of the clubs and discotheques in Israel. "Would I want that space to be turned into a club or a gallery for culture and art? Of course I would, but that's not the way Tel Aviv works these days. It is selling out to real estate and Allenby 58 is another example."

According to Shorr, unlike rock and roll, the nightlife scene doesn't wax nostalgic about its past. He raises the question of whether there is in fact a way to remember the experience there was a building of this sort afforded the city.

"I don't miss the Allenby the way I miss other clubs that have been closed. I am not so nostalgic about its music, which today is considered awful, and I am not nostalgic about [the pub] Haglula. When you come right down to it, by the time this project arises the people who went clubbing there will already be 40 years old. Young people who are living in the city today no longer have any special relationship to this building. I really wouldn't be in any hurry to put it on the heritage list - it's better to leave it abandoned or raze it altogether."

Surprisingly, Nadel and Stark express support for transforming their former club into residential apartments. "I don't think it could be anything else from a real estate perspective," explained Nadel, who himself bid to purchase the building a few years ago. Today he is sorry he didn't submit a higher bid to the sellers.

"I think the Tel Aviv municipality's attempt to give Allenby Street a facelift is welcome," added Stark. "I am convinced the new project will breath new and wonderful life into this street. The going-out culture has to be dynamic and not march in place. When the Allenby opened it was the margins of the city but today the margins are already somewhere else. Nightlife has to update, renew and refresh itself."

The debate concerning the preservation of 58 Allenby Street is not just architectural but also cultural, because it involves a public place of importance to the city's heritage. Architect Tal Eyal, who has specialized in preservation, believes the building is a good representative of its period and its function as a cinema, "even if the architectural quality is not outstanding."

In her opinion, there is a problem with preserving extinct kinds of uses such as movie theaters in city centers but she would be glad to see the building repurposed for some public use that affords access to the general public.

Eyal mentions the Gordon swimming pool on the Tel Aviv beachfront - a place devoid of architectural importance that under pressure from the inhabitants, has undergone an extensive renovation and has not been demolished as the municipality had planned.

By way of contrast, she talks about the Hapoel Tel Aviv fans' Ussishkin Hall, "a place with a sports and cultural heritage," as she defines it, which did not withstand development pressures.

Maybe it is necessary to map "the hot spots" of the city's cultural tradition, she says, and challenge the existing preservation list, which has the object at its center and not necessarily cultural value.