When Acre goes boutique
With due respect to backpackers, the best way to develop a city is to aim for a wealthier crowd of visitors, says chef-entrepreneur Uri Jeremias, who has just transformed two historical structures into a boutique hotel.
The Efendi Hotel, which opened officially earlier this month, is hopefully the harbinger of other high-quality establishments that should sprout up in the old city of Acre. The boutique hotel, which was established by Uri Jeremias, a chef who is famous for presiding over a culinary kingdom − Acre port’s Uri Buri fish restaurant) − that attracts diners from around the country, is located in two Ottoman-style, 19th-century buildings erected on foundations dating back to the Crusader period.
Jeremias, who is of Yekke (German-Jewish) origins, leased the buildings about eight years ago and has since devoted much time and money − first on his own and subsequently with his partners, businessmen Avi and Dany Reik − to convert them into a 12-room boutique hotel with a total area of 1,350 square meters. It is estimated that about NIS 20 million have been invested in the project.
The premises include a lobby with domed ceilings, a splendid dining room, wine bar, spa, an original (400-year-old) Turkish bath, and a roof terrace. The cost of a room per night ranges from NIS 1,500 to NIS 3,000.
The process of renovation comprised a long saga of architectural and bureaucratic woes, some of them stemming from insufficient funds and some from a lack of clearly formulated design concept. Architects were hired and fired, and meanwhile the Israel Antiquities Authority and planning authorities piled on restrictions concerning preservation of historical structures. About a year ago, when the hotel was almost ready to open, dampness was discovered in the walls; the ensuing renovation work consumed another several million shekels. The final design of the hotel is the work of architects Arnon Nir and Ishai Breslauer, of the Arstudio architectural firm, in cooperation with designers Orit Kolonymus and Ronit Reik.
The Efendi is located in a small alley near the old Acre seawall. Its two buildings are historically among the most luxurious residences in the city. The northern one, also known as the Shukri house, belonged to a wealthy family of Acre merchants; the southern structure, the Afifi house, served in recent years as a community center and kindergarten. When Jeremias leased them they were in terrible shape; he spent a few months compiling a comprehensive file documenting every aspect of the original design.
The hotel spreads over both buildings on five floors featuring labyrinthine corridors. The wine bar is on the lowest floor, where impressive stone vaults were found, dating back to the Byzantine era. Above it, on the entry level, are the lobby, hotel dining room and the Turkish bath. The natural light coming into these spaces is limited by the crowded and dense building characteristic of Acre. From the lobby level, a narrow staircase and elevators lead up to the rooms.
Since none of the elements of the original structures conformed to modern standards (“No one back then thought about air conditioning or 12 bathrooms”), architect Nir had to find original solutions for the infrastructure. Some are hidden behind the wooden ceilings, and others behind walls or in the floor. A small bridge was built between the two buildings, an elevator was installed in the southern one, and on the roof of the northern building two new guest rooms were built that share a porch.
In general the rooms are very impressive, although the original Ottoman design, which has been preserved and includes elaborately painted ceilings, exudes an aura of kitsch. This is the case, for example, with a rosette in the center of the ceiling of one of the public spaces, which is made of latticed wood in the shape of an artichoke, and another one that is inlaid with mirrors and gold leaf. But anyone who is not put off by this exuberant Ottoman style will definitely enjoy their stay.
Historical research on the premises revealed that the ceiling paintings were apparently done by a Jerusalem artist named Salibeh Yohanna, who was active in the second half of the 19th century and was commissioned to decorate the homes of wealthy families in the north of the country. In addition to the decorated ceilings, a large fresco was found on the wall above the staircase near the porch of the northern building, depicting Constantinople, the ancient capital of the Ottoman Empire. The artist apparently wanted to integrate into the picture a railroad train, which he had never seen in his life, and painted it as a string of coaches with a trail of smoke hovering above.
Faith in the city
The Efendi’s ceilings were restored over a period of many months by students of art and restoration from Italy. Other decorations on the walls of the rooms have been hidden under new plaster as part of the attempt to make the spaces less busy and overwrought.
Since the basic structure of the hotel’s premises was a given, Arnon Nir had to find solutions for the different interior spaces. An architect specializing in designing villas for Israel’s wealthy, he tried to preserve the rooms’ openness and imbue them with a feeling of luxury. In contrast to the original design, in which parts of the rooms were blocked off by dividing walls, Nir used “lighter” elements like low walls and glass when creating the bathrooms, and in general to afford a look at the ceilings from any part of the room. Each room in the hotel is unique, and required what Nir called “surgical intervention” in terms of planning.
Old Acre, with its Crusader-era walls and Ottoman buildings, is a place with potential that has to date been ignored, says Jeremias. “My feeling is that Acre is the economic ‘fulcrum’ for the whole of the Western Galilee,” he explains. “It is an amazing, high-quality touristic city, in some ways even more than many cities in Europe, like Rhodes or Dubrovnik and 1,001 other famous cities around the globe. It could be world class ... but Acre does not have the infrastructure of a pampering city, one that can really provide answers for tourists.”
Jeremias says that there is only one other hotel in the city, under Arab ownership, plus a simple youth hostel.
“Despite its designation as a World Heritage Site, it is necessary to ask what Acre really has if, at the end of the day, you have to travel to a bed-and-breakfast at one of the nearby kibbutzim. Until now, Acre hasn’t had a single, proper hotel room. To propel a city like this forward, one has to reach the top 10th percentile − to attract a high-quality group that spends money and is favorable toward the city. I don’t have anything against backpackers; I was a backpacker myself for four years. But I didn’t spend any money as one.”
How was Jeremias able to lay his hands on this property? “No one responded to the tender,” he replies. “Dozens of people passed through here and no one bought it. And after all, it’s Acre’s glory − its finest house, standing in all its desolation after three tenders and no one else put a penny into it. Beyond that I have faith in the city. When I opened the fish restaurant, all my Jewish friends told me I was stupid. But in the end I succeeded.
“The area around the restaurant also started to flourish a bit; someone opened a juice stand nearby and someone else opened a restaurant. Things like that. In the second phase I opened an ice-cream store and now the hotel. When you compare the way this alley used to look to the way it looks today, there’s no comparison. People have invested a bit in their houses, they realized the value of the real estate and it looks different.”
Like every large building project, the establishment of the Efendi was accompanied by protest on the part of neighbors who are indeed feeling the local real estate awakening and increasing pressure from developers. During the course of the construction, Jeremias installed an elevator near one of the neighboring houses. One neighbor objected, appealed to the municipality and enlisted his friends to sign a petition.
“Someone tried to get the neighbors here agitated,” says Jeremias dismissively, but he says, “the inhabitants do not feel threatened by this project [now]. At the hotel’s opening there were priests, Muslim clerics, neighbors and friends.
I am not threatening anyone and I assume that today they can see that I am not a danger at all. This project is a formative moment in the history of Acre.”