Once the Home of Premiers, Famed Jerusalem House May Get Lease on Life

Society for the Protection of Nature to move into the house that served Israel's first four prime ministers.

Yael Engelhart

In late 2012, during the run-up to the last Knesset elections, an abandoned house in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood became the temporary headquarters of the Social Justice party. The squatters made symbolic use of both the house’s identities – as the official residence of three of Israel’s first four prime ministers, and as one of 1,600 abandoned houses in the city – to underscore the party’s political statement about the government’s disinterest in finding solutions to Israelis’ housing problems. But the tiny party left the Julius Jacobs house in January 2013, leaving behind only the slogans it had sprayed in black paint: “Battered houses for people without a roof” and “The establishment is against the people, the people are against the establishment.”

It’s no accident that the building aroused the protesters’ fury: For four years, there have been no (legal) residents in the home on the corner of Ussishkin and Ben Maimon streets that in turn housed David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir. The house was built in 1933 by architect Benjamin Chaikin for British officer Julius Jacobs, then the deputy governor of Jerusalem, and his wife Nechama. Back then, it served as both a family dwelling and a gathering place for leaders of the British Mandatory government: It had a large living room with a sliding door that separated it from the private areas of the house.

Chaikin, who was raised and educated in England, continued to be involved in British society even after moving to Palestine in 1920. His architectural style ranged between the International Style and one that was more Levantine and Orientalist, combining simple orthogonal geometry with “eastern” arches and rounded windows.

Ben-Gurion lived in the house intermittently, both before he retired to Sde Boker in the 1950s and again after his return to office, until his final retirement in 1963. His successor, Moshe Sharett, waived his right to live there, but Eshkol lived in the house as a serving prime minister until his dying day. That is where he met his second wife, Miriam, and that is also where the cabinet met after a heart attack made it difficult for him to leave the house.

In 1974, however, when Yitzhak Rabin succeeded Golda Meir as prime minister, he decided to move the official residence half a kilometer eastward, to the Edward Aghion House (which was previously the foreign minister’s residence). That house has been the prime minister’s official residence ever since.

Three years later, the abandoned Julius Jacobs house was handed over to the Yad Levi Eskhol organization, which was founded after his death. But the organization put off implementing its plan to turn the building into a museum commemorating Israel’s third prime minister, apparently for budgetary reasons.

Even back then, in the 1970s, the house was old and needed a comprehensive renovation. Because the problems weren’t dealt with then, its condition kept getting worse, and therefore, the needed renovations kept getting more expensive.

Today the house is fenced off behind a stone wall with a wobbly metal gate that seems likely to fall at any moment, and surrounded by a courtyard full of weeds. But despite the neglect, the courtyard – in this season a mixture of dried up, fragrant and yellowing plants – creates an island of quiet in central Jerusalem. The building’s façade is in good shape, because the last renovation tackled all the exterior walls. But the rooms inside are almost totally destroyed.

Yet now, after this long period of neglect, a ray of light has emerged in the form of cooperation between Yad Levi Eshkol and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. SPNI plans to move its offices there, and in exchange it will help fund and manage the project to turn the house into a combination museum and office building. Additional financial help will come from the national heritage sites department of the Prime Minister’s Office. The agreement in principle was signed just a few weeks ago, in the house itself and in the presence of Eshkol’s widow Miriam, who has labored for years to preserve her husband’s memory.

In order to speed up the process of obtaining permits and avoid getting bogged down in years of bureaucracy, the plan is to renovate the interior only. Yad Levi Eshkol is already in talks with designer Eliav Nahlieli, who specializes in designing museums.