Disassembly Complete, Historic Home Must Sit as Rubble Until Court Ruling

The days are numbered for the numbered stones that were formerly of the Steinberg family home.

The home of the Steinbergs was one of the first to be built in Motza, one of the earliest modern Jewish farming communities built in Ottoman Israel. Since its construction, in 1890, until about a year ago, the Steinberg home stood adjacent to the "red house," next to the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem Highway. Now it has been reduced to a few piles of carefully arranged, clearly numbered stones and roof tiles in an open lot on a nearby moshav.

But the plan to reconstruct the building on a lot not far from its original location has been suspended due to disputed circumstances that are part of a case before the High Court of Justice.

rubble - Michal Fattal - January 26 2011
Michal Fattal

The home was built by Motza's "mukhtar," or unofficial chieftan, Yerahmiel Steinberg, the progenitor of a family that belongs to the Israeli elite, with illustrious descendants such as Ora Herzog, the wife of Israel's sixth president, Chaim Herzog, and Suzy Eban, wife of the late Foreign Minister, Abba Eban.

"These stones are suffused with history," said Shalom Bar Gad, Yerahmiel Steinberg's grandson and the family's unofficial historian, wandering among the rubble that was once his home. "I feel like someone stuck a knife in my heart. They're going to kill 120 years of history. There was nothing in Motza until my grandfather went there."

A few years ago the owners of the land on which the Steinberg home was built received a permit from Jerusalem city hall to demolish the house down to the foundations, apparently due to a bureaucratic error made during the transfer of Motza from the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council to the capital.

In the wake of a Haaretz report and public protest, the developers of the property and the Jerusalem municipality devised the solution of rebuilding the home, incorporating it into a new residential and commercial center planned for the site.

The disassembly-reassembly of historic buildings is a controversial issue. The method makes it possible to move buildings, or to build underground parking garages or install infrastructure beneath them and replace them, but hardcore building preservationists argue that it takes away from the authentic character of the original building and is just an elegant way for real estate developers to get around building preservation directives.

The developers of the new Motza center and the city applied to the Israel Lands Administration, requesting a lot of about 25 meters by 10 meters at the appointed site. After the agency gave its approval on principle of the plan, they hired Zohar Sela, a contractor specializing in the disassembly and rebuilding of historic buildings.

The disasembly, including the careful numbering of every stone, took about two months. The developer behind the new residential-commercial center, the architect Eyal Itzkin, planned to use the rebuilt Steinberg home as a restaurant and museum.

Now, however, it appears that the Israel Lands Administration will turn down the developers' application to use the land.

"I thought it was an opportunity to do something of value, but I came out of it a chump. I'm really frustrated by the whole thing," Itzkin said.

In a statement, the Israel Lands Administration denied that any agreement was reached over the allocation of a building lot for the home. "The Jerusalem municipality asked us to allot the land. It was determined that the developer should be allowed to use the lot, but in the wake of High Court petitions against the plan to upgrade Route 1 it turned out that the lot was earmarked for widening a road within Motza. Until the court makes its ruling, no land allocation decision can be made."