In Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem, Oriental Splendor Meets New York Grandeur

Incorporating only the facade of the historic Palace Hotel and an aura of the past, the world-famous Waldorf puts itself on the map of the city's luxury accommodations.

Yael Engelhart

The “most expensive” and “most luxurious” hotel, boasting “the biggest” reception hall in Jerusalem, will open its doors in the Israeli capital this month with much fanfare. All these superlatives have been attributed in recent months to the new Waldorf Astoria hotel, which is now complete after four years of delays, seven years of construction and an investment of $150 million.

Located at corner of Agron and King David Streets, the new Waldorf Astoria will rub shoulders with the city's other landmark luxury hotels, the eponymous King David and the David Citadel, and will offer well-heeled easy access to the upscale Mamilla Mall and the Old City.

So at a cost of between $490 and $1400 a night, what does a hotel born in New York, built in Jerusalem look like?

The hotel’s historic grandeur is almost nonexistent, and in reality, the only remnant is a wall from the luxurious Palace Hotel, which was only open for five years in the 1930s before it was converted to government offices. Still, the hotel creates an appearance that integrates the fibers of the city’s past – as if that past had been here all along. Lots of negative things can be said about the luxury and the kitsch, the strangeness and the social alienation of projects like these – luxury hotels and apartment buildings in central areas. But poor Jerusalem deserves a bit of splendor, and this new hotel, which is the latest pearl on the string of luxury hotels, residences and shops, looks so presentable that it almost creates an air of normality.

The Reichman family of Toronto is behind the project, and Feigin Architects is responsible for the design, with architect Amir Shoham responsible for preservation. The design is anything but minimal, smooth, or light, but rather rich, heavy and occasionally crowded. The heaviness, both symbolic heaviness and that of the chandeliers, seems to constantly threaten to tear down the walls from underneath the roof. For example, an art installation features four dozen glass doves hanging near the stairs that lead down to the lower floors, flying silently above a statue meant to represent Jerusalem’s place at the center of the world.

“Not all of the guests are architects,” explains project architect Yehuda Feigin, with a raised brow. The interior design was done by Turkish designer Sinan Kafadar, though some design choices were made by the developers as well.

Entrance to the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem. Photo by Daniel Cohen

Feigin is right: The target audience for this hotel are Jews from abroad who can allow themselves to splurge, as well as foreign diplomats. They all want to see what they’re paying for, and they generally aren’t satisfied with the city’s heaviness. It’s only right that an expensive hotel shows itself off by sparkling and shining (the chandeliers alone cost over $2 million), rather than hiding itself behind modest, minimalist design.

The Big Apple’s ‘culture of congestion’

The same “oriental splendor” as defined by David Kroyanker, a veteran Jerusalem architect and architectural historian, is fitting for the Waldorf Astoria. The original New York version served as a symbol of the “culture of congestion,” described in Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas’ book, “Delirious New York.” The Jerusalem version of the hotel forms a triangle, created by the meeting point of the four-story “old” wing (meaning, the new adjoined to the old wall) and the nine-story new wing. The lobby contains two restaurants offering different styles of cuisine suited for day and night. Across the small roundabout which was built for dropping guests off at the main entrance, sits the residential building, which is also the project’s financial anchor.

Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem. Photo by Yael Engelhart

The inner courtyard appears small, as it looks in the picture, almost intimate. Its arching walls of Jerusalem stone look as if they’re smiling – with apologies for the cliché – as does the floral arrangement on the entrance table, which is an Oriental-Israeli mixture in a glass vase. The original entryway from the Palace was torn down and rebuilt with laser-like precision, but adorned at its center with a large clock, which is a Waldorf Astoria hallmark. Though impressive, the space is not used for anything but an entryway, which makes one question the extensive replication work.

Aside from the 226 rooms and suites, the hotel also features conference rooms, a banquet hall with eight-meter high (26-foot) ceilings, as well as a lobby area complete with decorated carpets and glass lamps dangling from the ceiling. Pools and a spa facility have yet to be completed, as is a roof garden on the smaller part of the structure. The hotel doesn’t feature very impressive views - it's downhill from the Old City and several buildings at higher elevation stand in the way - and so it was planned as “a city within a city,” and any internal communication or gathering is done in the joint lobby. The courtyard is covered by a glass ceiling, which is meant to open up when necessary, to allow for the construction of sukkah, a temporary structure for the Sukkot holiday each fall.

Arabesques in the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem. Photo by Yael Engelhart

Four poster-beds and arabesques

The pseudo-historical cover story created by the developers is a continuation of the old Palace’s bluff. Planned by Turkish Architect Mimar Kemaleddin in 1929, the original Palace was built next to modern buildings as well, though it looked much older than it was. Commissioned by Jerusalem’s Grand Mufti Hajj Amin-El Husseini, the Palace’s design drew elements from Moorish architecture combined with a slight Art Nouveau twist, and created an eclectic mix that was popular in Turkey back then.

Grand chandeliers in the Waldorf Astoria. Photo by Yael Engelhart

The grand hotel, then adorned by arabesque pieces and furnished with modern plumbing, telephones and four-poster beds, was only open for a few years. It was soon outdone by the opening of the even grander King David Hotel, which with its Swiss management drew in the city’s richest tourists. It was built specifically to create a barrier between the Old City and the new. The area of the new Waldorf Astoria is 43,000 meters (about 463,000 square feet) – approximately five times as large as the original structure.

Kroyanker says that building the hotel was part of the Mufti’s plan to build the Al-Aqsa University across the street, where Jerusalem’s Independence Park now sits, alongside a Muslim cemetery. The hotel, Kroyanker explains, was meant to be part of the university complex and a significant Muslim construction project in the center of the city, which was then the division line between Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem. A relic of the Muslim project, a cornerstone inscription on the building remains, which reads (in Arabic): “We will do and build like they built and did - 1929, Supreme Muslim Council,” a reference to those who built the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount.

A lounge in the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem. Photo by Yael Engelhart

The flagship Waldorf Astoria in New York has long since expanded beyond Manhattan. Now Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts a Hilton Worldwide luxury hotel and resort brand, it has properties around the world, and this year alone, is slated to open hotels not just in Jerusalem, but in Beijing, Amsterdam and Dubai.

"I feel very good about the completion of the hotel, and I think it will contribute to Jerusalem," says Kroyanker, who observed the emergence of the project from afar. "You have to judge by the context - this shell imposes this kind of face on the building."