The Forgotten Architect Who Built Tel Aviv

Yehuda Magidovitch, the first city engineer of Tel Aviv, planned over 500 buildings. Most no longer exist and many of the rest are on the verge of collapse

Ofer Aderet
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Pension Ginosar, also known as the Ben Nahum Hotel, at the corner of Allenby Road and Rothschild Boulevard.
Pension Ginosar, also known as the Ben Nahum Hotel, at the corner of Allenby Road and Rothschild Boulevard.Credit: David Bachar
Ofer Aderet

The many Tel Aviv buildings designed by architect Yehuda Magidovitch are the focus of a tour lead by Shula Wiedrich, a researcher of the city’s history.

“There is no route through the city in which he does not star in a big way,” Wiedrich says. “His buildings are milestones in the architecture of Tel Aviv. He was so prolific that almost every other building I talk about is his.”

“He was the first architect with a degree and the most important one who worked in little Tel Aviv in the 1920s,” says Prof. Gilead Duvshani, a professor at the Holon Institute of Technology, an architect and the author of a book on Magidovitch and his architecture. “His buildings are the most magnificent and unique in the city. He made quality architecture.”

Today, some 55 years after the death of Magidovitch, Tel Aviv’s first city engineer, only about a quarter of the 500 buildings he designed are still standing – and most of those that have survived are in rickety shape. The rest were demolished during the decades in which there was limited awareness of the need for preservation in Tel Aviv. Other buildings he designed have not been located, due to the lack of an orderly archive of his work and the fact that other architects signed the plans for some of his buildings.

The list of buildings designed in the new city by Magidovitch, who used to arrive at work on a white horse, is long and impressive. Some, such as the Esther Cinema in Dizengoff Square, are well-known to the public. Others, including several on the neglected Allenby Road, serve as silent testimony to his glory days. Every one of these buildings has a bit of local history and a story.

Beit Levine, also known as the Russian embassy. Photo by David Bachar

One of the best known concerns the construction of the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv, which was accompanied by mistakes and conflicts and involved quite a number of architects. Today, only pictures in archives attest to the original design of the building, which underwent numerous changes since Magidovitch designed it.

“I’m embarrassed by this work and have much greater respect for the small synagogue of the Moshav Zekenim old people’s home on Allenby,” Magidovitch wrote, referring to another synagogue, now closed, located across the street from the Great Synagogue.

“Architect Yehuda Magidovitch – The Artist from Uman,” a new book (in Hebrew) about Magidovitch which was recently published by his family in a private edition, is based on the personal archive he left behind and sheds more light on his life and work.

The family hopes he will now receive the proper commemoration and honor he deserves in the city he helped build. “He was without a doubt the ‘cornerstone’ of the planning and construction of Tel Aviv,” says Dr. Yoav Hetzroni, who wrote the book together with his wife Ruth, a granddaughter of Magidovitch. Hetzroni tells of “the architect whose works reflected the history of the architecture of Tel Aviv, from the ‘eclectic’ design and the construction of” dream homes’ through the international style – the Bauhaus.”

“His work is chiseled into every stone in the houses and streets of Tel Aviv,” says Hetzroni.

The Esther Theater in 1951. Photo by GPO

Magidovitch was born in the Ukrainian city of Uman in 1886, studied in a “heder,” a traditional religious Jewish school, when he was young and later went on to study in the school of arts in Odessa. He was drafted in World War I, but he avoided service by having doctors intentionally break his leg and pull out teeth. In 1919, without completing his degree in architecture, he decided to leave Russia and emigrate to pre-state Israel with his family. In Israel he became a respected architect, though not everyone was pleased that Magidovitch continued to earn a very nice living on the side while serving as the chief architect for the city.

Not far from the Great Synagogue, at the corner of Allenby Road and Rothschild Boulevard, stands another building designed by Magidovitch, the first luxury hotel in the city. It was built in 1921 as the “Pension Ginosar,” though it is also known as the Ben Nahum Hotel. The building went through so many changes that its original design was almost completely erased, according to preservation architect Nitza Metzger Szmuk, who was responsible for the preservation of the building. Today, because of its impressive columns, beautiful dome and restored wall paintings, many passers-by on Rothschild Boulevard actually take notice of the building.

A bit further north, at the corner of Shadal Street, is another jewel designed by Magidovitch. The Levin House, also known as the Russian Embassy, is one of the most impressive buildings in the entire city. Magidovitch designed it in 1924 as a large home for Zvi Yaakov Levin, who immigrated from Chicago. The building has served many tenants over the years, including the headquarters of the pre-state Haganah militia and, of course, the Russian Embassy. The brother of long-serving Tel Aviv mayor Israel Rokach also lived there. The building made the headlines in 1953, when an underground group of former Stern Gang members exploded a bomb there in protest at “Stalin’s crimes.”

Other buildings designed by Magidovitch no longer exist. One was the Galei Tel Aviv Casino on the edge of the Mediterranean. Despite its name, there was no gambling there, but a coffee house frequented in the 1920s and 1930s by such people as Haim Nahman Bialik and Ahad Haam. It was even visited by Winston Churchill. It was described as “a sort of enchanted castle for the good life,” by former Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo Lahat. about it. The city demolished the building in 1939 due to its precarious condition, with a large crowd watching as it exploded.

Magidovitch himself called for taking care to preserve the past: “Today city hall, tomorrow Gymnasia Herzliya, and so on,” he wrote in the Haboker newspaper in 1941, bemoaning the destruction of the old city hall and the water tower on Rothschild Boulevard. Less than 20 years later, in 1959, the Gymnasia too was demolished, with the Shalom Meir Tower rising on its ruins.

Even though it has been 54 years since the death of Yehuda Magidovitch, and despite the importance of his architectural work, no street in Tel Aviv-Jaffa bears his name. That may still change, following the pressure on the municipality from his descendants, who hope to preserve his heritage.

The small synagogue of the Moshav Zekenim old people’s home.
Photo by Ruti and Yoav Hezroni

The Great Synagogue in 1934. Photo by GPO

Yehuda Magidovitch. Photo by Courtesy

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