Tour of Historic Israeli Hotels Offers Glimpse Into a Luxurious Past

While some of the grandest hotels from a century ago are being restored to their former glory, others are on the verge of ruin.

Moshe Ashkenazi (Archive photo)

A nostalgic tour of historic hotels that no longer exist takes us from the burnt hut in Petah Tikva where David Ben-Gurion stayed, through Jaffa’s famous Kamenitz Hotel where Theodor Herzl spent the night, to Tel Aviv’s Elkonin Central Hotel, where Jordan’s King Abdullah I stayed before becoming monarch.

Sarah Faignbaum, wife of Misu (“the Kebab King”), was surprised to hear this week of the distinguished guest who stayed here at 7 Raziel Street, 117 years ago. “Herzl? I’ve been here for 50 years and never heard that,” she said, standing at the Jaffa restaurant’s door.

In 1898, decades before the legendary diner opened, the visionary who predicted the Jewish state stayed at the Kamenitz Hotel, located in that very building. Rachel Danin, a neighbor, wrote in her memoirs, “I went out on the balcony to see his face. I was so moved by his handsome looks. He looked like a king!”

According to Jaffa legend, Herzl insisted on staying at a Jewish hotel when he came to Israel. Since there were no vacancies, he slept on a table in the hotel’s reading room.

No trace remains of the hotel, which was described as “the first Israeli hotel in Jaffa, visited daily by ministers, counts and venerable guests.” There isn’t even a commemorative plaque at the entrance. “Anywhere else in the world, this building would have become a pilgrimage site,” says Shula Widrich, a Tel Aviv historian and tour guide.

The Kamenitz Hotel’s splendor is captured in media reports from its heyday. “This house is amazingly grand,” one article stated in 1894. “The rooms are spacious and high class. The railway station, the post and telegraph are opposite this building.”

The hotel provided guests with smoking, reading and game rooms; a large lounge with a grand piano; a luxury bar; and a restaurant. The rooms themselves were equipped with oil lamps, chamber pots, a wash pitcher and a mosquito net. Once a fortnight, the beds’ metal frames were burned to get rid of the bedbugs.

‘Abandoned and derelict’

Numerous historic hotels are scattered around the country. Some have been destroyed, others have been preserved and turned into boutique hotels, offices or apartment buildings. Many remain peeling and crumbling.

“It’s sad to see them abandoned and derelict,” says Uri Ben Zioni, head of the northern district of the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites.

For the past 30 years, the society has been fighting to save historic buildings – including hotels from the late 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. “Wherever you dig a little you find that these hotels have profound historic and architectural values, because they were built to attract people. Some are seen as iconic models on an international scale,” Ben Zioni notes.

One outstanding example is the iconic Bosel House in Safed. Opened in 1904, the building was initially used as the English Mission Hospital and then as a Scottish mission high school called the Scottish College. In 1944, the Clalit Sick Fund set up a “convalescent home” in the 8-dunam [2 acre] compound named after Yosef Bosel, one of Kibbutz Degania’s founders. Today, the building is owned by Safed College.

Archived papers at the site include the “house regulations” that were distributed to guests. The establishment wished its guests a “pleasant vacation,” but not before presenting them with a list of rigid rules – including rising, eating, resting and entertainment times.

The rules included instructions such as: “Don’t lie on the bedspread”; “Don’t dwell on everyday affairs”; “Don’t waste your time and nerves on phone calls and don’t be dragged into arguments”; and “Games and newspapers may only be used in the reading hall.”

The guest rooms and dining room were designed by Israel Prize laureate Yaakov Rechter. Nonetheless, the building was condemned.

“They wanted to build a neighborhood there. Without the preservation society, it would have demolished,” says Safed College director Shmuel Har Noy.

The compound is slated to be the college’s new campus and the historic buildings will be preserved.

Rehovot’s Margoa Hotel, owned by Drs. Friedman and Blumenthal, advertised itself as a place of “rest (for the weary of work), convalescence (after sickness) and those requiring medical care people suffering from chronic constipation and obesity are also admitted.”

For a short while, the Elizabeth Hotel in Tiberias (later The Ginosar) was the most prestigious hotel in the north. Inaugurated in 1929, it was named after the sweetheart of owner/entrepreneur/journalist Shlomo Feingold. It boasted scarlet velvet curtains, a billiard room, and a dance and concert hall. In 1931, it went bankrupt and nowadays the place is abandoned and run-down.

The famous Hotel Rabinovich, on Petah Tikva’s Pinsker Street, is today a burned, crumbling wooden hut adjacent to a taxicab stand and Russian secondhand bookstore. This wreck, where a plaque says Ben-Gurion once stayed, was favored by the Second Aliyah people.

Sarah, wife of proprietor Israel Rabinovich, gave each guest his soup, even if he couldn’t pay. She reportedly used to say, “He has to eat, never mind, tomorrow he’ll get a job and pay.”

“In communities like Petah Tikva, hotels were simple, frugal places for workers,” says Tal Ben-Nun, director of the preservation society’s central region.

Although founded four years after Petah Tikva, Rishon Letzion has overtaken it in conservation. Currently, the restoration of London Hotel, which operated between 1922-1934 in a building dating back to 1891, is nearing completion.

“In those days, people cared about each other. If you came hungry, you got food. Nobody would turn you out,” says Yona Shapira, curator of the Rishon Letzion Museum. The historic building is to be turned into a wing of the municipal museum after the holidays.

The Templers, who came from Germany in the 19th century, built especially high-standard hotels. “A lot can be learned from their hotels about Tel Aviv’s architectural heritage,” says Tamar Tochler, the Tel Aviv district manager of the preservation society.

The Jerusalem Hotel in Jaffa, whose façade is reminiscent of the old city’s walls, is a good example. It had 40 rooms – considered large for the time – each named after a prophet. Parts of it were brought from abroad and assembled here by the American Protestants who came in the 1860s and bought the hotel. The establishment, which hosted the entourage of German Emperor Wilhelm II, has recently been renovated but hasn’t reopened to the public yet.

Near it stands the building of the former Hotel du Park, established in 1895, which was featured in a number of SY Agnon’s stories. It boasted a garden with monkeys, parrots, antiquities and various trees. The only remnant of all this is a ficus tree. Today, its shade is enjoyed by the visitors to the Messianic guesthouse operating on the site.

The Elkonin Central Hotel, believed to be Tel Aviv’s first hotel, opened in 1913 on Lilienblum Street – not far from Eden, the city’s first cinema. It is now being converted into a boutique hotel, combining the historic building and a new wing. The well-to-do tourists who can afford to stay in it will be able to add their name in the guest book to those of Ben-Gurion and Abdullah I, who later became king of Jordan. Rumor has it he had an affair with the proprietor’s daughter while staying there.