The Shneller complex in Jerusalem.
The Shneller complex in Jerusalem. Photo by Emil Salman
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Emil Salman
Camp Schneller, Jerusalem. Renovating the main building alone is set to cost NIS 40 million. Photo by Emil Salman

An army base built on a centuries-old edifice built by German missionaries in Jerusalem is being picked bare by thieves.

More than three years have passed since the Israel Defense Forces abandoned Camp Schneller in Jerusalem, with its lovely historic buildings. The Jerusalem municipality has taken over the the former military base, but is having difficulty protecting the buildings. A few months ago, apparently due to a financial disagreement between the municipality and the Israel Lands Administration, the security guards were sent home, and the buildings were damaged by vandals and metal thieves.

The Schneller compound was built in the mid-19th century by German missionaries and it served as an orphanage and a German neighborhood in West Jerusalem. Constructed of Jerusalem stone, the buildings are considered a valuable urban monument. In 1939, with the outbreak of World War II and with Palestine under British rule, the British expelled the Germans from the site. Eventually the IDF inherited the buildings and used them for an army liaison office and various headquarters. The army did not make much effort to preserve the buildings and they started to disintegrate.

After the base was evacuated more than three years ago, the eight buildings were slated for preservation and were handed over to the municipality. They were surrounded by a fence and security guards were posted. There are plans to build an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood among the buildings, with 600 residential units and a large public park, but construction has yet to begin and the municipality has not yet managed to populate most of the existing buildings due to the high cost of renovation and preservation. Meanwhile they are falling apart.

Here and there, one can see vestiges of the IDF period: a Field Security sticker or a sign by a since-forgotten sergeant. After the security guard detail was discontinued a few months ago, the fences were breached and uninvited guests began to arrive - metal thieves, collectors of floor tiles and ordinary vandals. The doors and windows were broken, some of the floor tiles were pulled up and the walls defiled by graffiti. Plant life grows in the rooms. After a meeting in the municipality last week, the guard detail was restored. The damage remains.

The municipality and other groups have been using the buildings for various purposes, such as storing construction waste and training police for combat in urban areas. One of the buildings has become an ultra-Orthodox girls school belonging to the Bais Yaakov network. The classrooms were constructed in the historic buildings and no preservation architect accompanied the renovation, despite the municipality's promise to preserve the compound.

Another building was given to the Gur Hasidim, who are using it for a Talmud Torah, a religious elementary school. Groups involved in the project say the Hasidim are strictly adhering to a preservation and renovation program accompanied by an architect. The other buildings, including the main, most identifiable building, which has a bell tower on top, have remained deserted.

Any future use of this historic site will require considerable fund-raising: The cost of renovating the main building alone is estimated at about NIS 40 million. Meanwhile, there are people who dream of opening a museum of the history of the Spanish communities. Others are trying to promote the opening of a boutique hotel for the ultra-Orthodox.

Gil Gordon, who serves as the preservation architect for the compound and is researching it in his doctoral thesis, has expressed concern about the future of the buildings. "In the final analysis, all this neglect will cost much more, because repairing the damage will cost far more than preservation," he said.

The director of the Council for the Preservation of Sites in Jerusalem, Itzik Shweiki, said: "There are those who take a shortsighted view, rather than considering the long term. Whoever decided to do away with security made a serious mistake and the taxpayer will have to pay for it. It's as though you had a beautiful garden that you nurtured, but one day you turn off the water and let it die."

The Jerusalem municipality stated in response: "The municipality considers the Schneller compound a unique compound with many values worth preserving, and a potential for development. After the IDF evacuation of the buildings the municipality took many steps to preserve the compound. As far as the security guards are concerned, it should be noted that a solution was provided immediately, in accordance with the situation on the ground, and that at present the municipality is preparing to fence in the work area for a new construction project in the compound, which during the first stage will include about 200 residential units.

"The municipality has designated the main building as a museum," it continued. "The municipality has published an initial call for an entrepreneur to operate the building, and is awaiting proposals."