First House of Historic Jerusalem Neighborhood Slated for Partial Demolition

Designed in 1924, the house in Rehavia belonged to two prominent figures during the British Mandate

The house at 14 Ramban Street in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Olivier Fitoussi

The city of Jerusalem has approved a plan to partly demolish the first house built in the historic Rehavia neighborhood. The capital’s zoning board recently approved the plan — under Tama 35, the national master plan for reinforcing older buildings against earthquakes. It calls for preserving the building’s original facade and rebuilding the structure, with the addition of two stories.

The house at 14 Ramban St. was built for Thelma Bentwich Yellin and her husband, architect Eliezer Yellin, prominent figures in British Mandate Jerusalem. Conservation activists and members of the Yellin family are trying to block the demolition.

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The house was designed and built in 1924 by Eliezer Rivlin, one of the first architects in pre-state Israel and the son of Zionist leader and educator David Yellin. It is considered a milestone in Zionist architecture, combining the international style with Middle Eastern elements.

“He used these elements to show that it was possible to create a new rooted Hebrew architecture supported by the local landscape and cut off from the past of the exile,” says architect and historian of architecture David Kroyanker, who wrote a book highlighting the work of Eliezer Yellin and his partner Wilhelm Hecker. “This is a unique building, a modest building with very beautiful architectural details,” said Kroyanker. Later, Yellin planned the expansion of the Rehavia neighborhood.

The house of Eliezer and Thelma Yellin during its construction, in 1924.

The house was an important center of social activity in Mandatory Palestine. It was sold in 1936 but was preserved in excellent condition for most of the time, including its interior and elements of carpentry and metalwork designed by Yellin.

The building is listed in the city’s register of buildings slated for preservation and is considered to require a very high level of preservation. But the head of the Jerusalem district of the National Council for the Conservation of Heritage Sites, Isaac Shweky, said that when the demand to preserve the house and a small number of other private buildings through a special order was raised, the city rejected it because it feared the owners would demand compensation.

Three years ago, the Yellin house was sold to a foreign resident, and later the Yellin family obtained a brochure on the plan to expand the structure. When the family approached the city on the matter, they received a reassuring letter saying the plan for the building requires full preservation without any additional construction. “The conservation department sees great importance in preserving this building,” said the letter from the city.

Nonetheless, the new owner submitted a plan to expand the building based on the laws governing Tama 38. The plan includes almost complete demolition of the original structure, except for the facade facing Ramban Street, and the addition of two new stories. The developers also submitted a request to extend the building beyond its original footprint and for exceptions from the Rehavia master plan restrictions. The local planning and building committee approved the plan and the exceptions, and is now entertaining objections against the plan.

Shweky filed an objection on behalf of the council, saying such a symbolic and special building that has been preserved in such good condition over the years should serve as an example of the preservation of historic, urban and architectural values and cannot be allowed to be harmed in any way.

Others who have filed objections are Eliezer and Thelma Yellin, the grandchildren of the original owners, who organized the family to file an objection to the plan. “Nostalgia is nice, but this house is truly important,” said Eliezer Yellin the grandson. “When you preserve you don’t look at a picture in a book, you see it in reality,” he said.

The current backyard of the house.
Olivier Fitoussi

“No one can deny that this house bears enormous symbolism on its shoulders,” said a Rehavia resident who asked to remain anonymous. “This is the beginning of the development of [modern Jewish] Jerusalem, the first building that paved the way for one of the most important residential neighborhoods that rose in the land of Israel during the Mandate period. The house is a main station in every tour of new Jewish Jerusalem and as I can now point to my children and tell them about the uniqueness and importance of it, as a cornerstone in the history of the Jewish community in Jerusalem; I want for them too to be able to show their children,” he said.

“It is not just another piece of real estate. It is clear that in the future they will cry over its destruction. This is an irreversible act tat the decision about it is about to be made, regrettably, in a negligent and apathetic way,” he added.

The municipality said in a response that the plan complies with Tama 38 and the Rehavia master plan and was approved by the preservation committee.