The abandoned building on Agron Street in Jerusalem, reclaimed by Empty House. Emil Salman

Art Project Solves Mystery of Abandoned, Ornate Jerusalem Building

Artists who entered abandoned building near Waldorf Astoria hotel have located Palestinian family who lived there until 1948.

There are few large buildings in Jerusalem that researchers cannot tell you about. Yet behind the imposing front of the city’s Waldorf Astoria lies an old building that proved a mystery for many years – until now.

This building was built in the 19th century and owned by Arabs until 1948. No one knew who the owners were or what their fate was, or what the purpose of the large two-story building on Agron Street was. After the war, the building was given to the municipality and housed several educational institutions. It’s been abandoned and neglected over the last decade, totally obscured by the imposing, recently renovated hotel.

Last month, though, the building was occupied by the Empty House (“Bait Rek”) movement – a group of artists that specializes in taking possession of abandoned properties in Jerusalem and using them as spaces for artistic endeavor.

Emil Salman

This time, unusually, the group obtained permission, and has created a complex artistic project that will continue throughout the summer.

The project involves several departments that simulate a 20th-century production plant. One department, for example, built furniture from items collected in the garbage. The human resources department recruits artists, while another is responsible for activities that the public can participate in.

A research and development division, meanwhile, focused on researching the history of the building. And after lengthy research and some good luck, they cracked the building’s secret.

Emil Salman

This project is Empty House’s sixth. The group was formed in 2011 by graduates of Jerusalem’s art schools, at the tail end of the social protest movement that was demonstrating against the cost of living in Israel. “We knew it was over and then started brainstorming ideas,” recalled cofounder Elad Yaron, 29. “We were searching for a place, but decided to create one instead.” They took over the derelict President Hotel in downtown Jerusalem and used it for several months, before moving on.

They then established a “kibbutz” on an abandoned farm, which incorporated many elements of kibbutz life. Later they established the “caravan,” a mobile cultural event. All of their events include concerts, visual arts exhibitions and the restoration of old buildings. The current project includes shows, cooking workshops and artistic displays.

Emil Salman

In the meantime, they uncovered the building’s history, hosting a descendant of one of its founders. The building is in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood (aka the Mugrabi or Moroccan quarter), which was built in 1865 as the second Jewish neighborhood outside the walls of the Old City. The ornate house was built between 1870 and 1890 by a Christian Arab, Anton Sarafin. The family fled to East Jerusalem in 1948, following the foundation of the State of Israel.

This was discovered by chance after a participating artist told a friend about the building, and the friend said his family had built it. Soon after, it was visited by Claire Sarafin, 96, who had lived there between 1944 and 1948.

Emil Salman

“It was quite emotional,” said Yaron. “She went from room to room and told us about the frescoes.

“We wanted to bring the building’s story to light. We’re the temporary owners of this building, but consideration must now be given to its future,” added Yaron.

Emil Salman
Emil Salman

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