The Rise and Fall of Israel's First Aviation Hotel

Israel's first aviation hotel, once a home away from home for the jet set, is a memento of a bygone era. Now the abandoned Avia Hotel in Yehud may have a new lease on life.

The journalist Theodore (Teddy ) Levita, Maariv's correspondent for diplomatic affairs and aviation in the 1950s, was accustomed to spending long hours aboard planes and in airports, by virtue of his work. Yet he was less than pleased with conditions at his own home airport in Lod. Along with coverage of exotic stories from the field ("First Armenian stewardess at El Al" ), his reportage included criticism of the uncomfortable facilities at the airport and of flight delays. He noticed that passengers who were forced to spend long hours at Lod did not have proper conditions for refreshing themselves or sleeping accommodations, and decided that this presented a business opportunity.

In the early '60s, Levita left the newspaper and became a full-time hotelier. Together with businessman Georg Taussig from Alitalia, a group of Jewish businessmen from California and the hotel division of the Israeli construction firm Rassco, he built the Avia Hotel, the first aviation hotel of its type in the Middle East.

Avia Hotel - Aviad Barness - 22032012
Aviad Barness

Decadence in Yehud

The plot that was chosen for the hotel was on the outskirts of Yehud, an Arab village abandoned in the War of Independence that had been converted into a tent encampment for new immigrants. However, the Avia bore not a trace of the charged political and social climate of the surroundings. The hotel, which was built on a low hill from which the airport runways were visible, soon became a focal point for leisure activity - and decadent behavior; a point of encounter between foreign aviation crews and businessmen, and sophisticated Israelis who wanted to rub elbows in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of the Jet Set. Today, 50 years after it opened, nothing remains of the hedonistic character and glamorous design of Avia. An extended series of renovations have turned it from modern architectural pearl to generic building concealed behind glass facades.

Two Tel Aviv architects were assigned the task of planning the Avia, which opened in the spring of 1961. They were David Akadi, who had rich experience in planning hotels and Israeli exhibition pavilions abroad, and the architect Uri Appenzeller, who had a fine reputation for innovative interior design. The two were asked to impart a modern international air to the hotel, while integrating advanced technologies for the comfort and ease of the guests. The building comprised a double-height ground floor that included a restaurant, bar, lobby, reading rooms and duty-free shop (with a drop-off service at the airport ). Atop the ground floor was a four-story wing that included about 100 rooms. In an effort to exceed local standards, each room was outfitted with an air-conditioner, wall-to-wall carpeting, telephone and radio. White fiberglass furniture with rounded lines completed the "world of aviation" image.

Modernist spirit

The hotel also conveyed a modernist spirit to the outside world: its facade was composed of poured-concrete frames in which peach-colored moving louvers were placed; these could be moved in order to prevent sunlight from penetrating inward. Outside the building was an expansive garden with swimming pool and tanning beds. Businessmen who wished to use Avia as a jumping-off point to tour the country could take advantage of the helipad at the edge of the garden. It was a "Hotel for the Jet Age," as one advertisement described it in the 1960's.

The numerous reporters who arrived to cover the grand opening of the hotel expressed concern lest the air traffic disturb the rest of the guests. However, following a conversation with Levita, Maariv allayed its readers' concerns, saying "Anyone in the hotel will not hear the noise, and will be able to sleep serenely because the hotel is equipped with acoustic ceilings, double and insulated walls, a wall-to-wall carpet system, and special noise abatement devices to protect the guests from the sound of jets and other shocks."

Avia operated 24 hours a day; the restaurant served a full menu even at the wee hours of the night, and shuttles transported the guests and air crews to the airport every 30 minutes. Phone lines connected the reception desk with the passenger terminal at the airport, and enabled ongoing updating of the hotel guests regarding the flight schedule in the pre-Internet era. On the day it opened, Avia already had a reported 25,000 hotel nights reserved.

Levita was himself an intriguing figure in the social and diplomatic milieu of the young Israel. Prior to his work at Maariv, he was one of the most senior foreign journalists working in Israel, and in 1998 he received an O.B.E. from the British Empire for news coverage of Israel and the Middle East on behalf of the British people over a 50-year period. Thanks to Levita's good connections, and the continuous presence of the foreign air crews, Avia was imbued with an international cosmopolitan ambience.

In an attempt to draw additional audiences, the hotel offered a variety of specials, including office services and vacations for businessmen. For example, an ad that appeared in the newspaper Davar that year promised: "You, the businessman who is interested in escaping from the tumult of your office, will be able to go every so often to the Avia Hotel, where comfortable working conditions await you."

And the conditions were indeed comfortable. Passionate romances were played out on the lawns around the pool and at the bar. The rooms were filled day and night, and gossip columns were brimming with reports about the who's who that arrived for brief stays. In 1962, the hotel initiated the "Jet Queen" beauty contest, featuring stewardesses from foreign airlines. As part of the sales promotion in Israel and elsewhere, Norma Cappagli, the Miss World of 1961, was invited to stay, and was photographed drinking Tempo juice at the bar.

Avia's fame did not endure. In the mid-'60s, with the improvement of the transit route between Lod and Tel Aviv, air crews began to stay at hotels on that city's beach. Avia's managers tried again and again to attract new audiences through a variety of services, such as an events hall and the opening of a nightclub (which was at first called "Jet Club" and later on "Cockpit" ), and eventually the pool was opened to locals.

The slow decline

But none of these arrangements could help restore the hotel to its glory days. Following a prolonged decline, it ceased to operate as a hotel early last decade, and was converted into an absorption hostel for immigrants from Ethiopia. Following the disengagement from the Gaza Strip, some of the evacuees were housed there for several months. Afterwards, the Soldiers Welfare Association leased it for the purpose of a retreat for soldiers, and it was eventually transferred to U. Dori, a large construction company. It currently stands empty.

The various incarnations of the Avia Hotel are reflected in the structural changes it has undergone, inside and out. The rooms designed by the architects Akadi and Appenzeller have been redone over and over, and have lost their clean modernist lines. Similarly, no trace remains of the public spaces: not the aviation bar, not the sumptuous lobby and not the restaurant that operated 24 hours a day. At one stage, the hotel owners decided to try and imbue it with an updated character, and to that end replaced the main facade with a screen wall made of light-blue glass. The facades of numerous modernist buildings in Israel have been upgraded recently. But when compared to the complexity of the original facade, the glass comes across like a cosmetic abstraction, like plastic surgery that pulls at the wrinkles and leaves no trace of the past.

The Yehud-Monoson municipality is currently promoting a plan to build a new cultural center alongside the Avia, and turn the hotel into student housing. The renovation, planned by the architect Naama Malis, will mark the hotel's latest incarnation.

Avia is a precious memento of a society life that for a short time migrated from the center of Tel Aviv to a small hotel on its outskirts. Any future development plan should be examined in light of the hotel's unique architectural and social heritage.

The Yehud-Monoson municipality responded that the owner, the U. Dori Group, and the municipality had reached an agreement, contingent on the approval of the urban master plan. The company's request to build inside the compound was rejected (instead an area in another part of Yehud, Kiryat Hasavyonim, will be allocated for that ). "Avia Hotel will become a stage and cultural center, and will offer apartments to students," states the municipality. "A school of the arts will be built nearby. The municipality does not intend to demolish the structure, but rather to upgrade it and adapt it for various social uses, for the benefit of the residents."