Until a few years ago, backpackers and low-budget tourists had few options for lodging in Jerusalem. Most of the city’s hotels were large and far from the city center, or they were expensive boutique hotels. Recently, though, an increasing number of hostels and three-star hotels have opened in Israel’s capital. The reason? The municipality has begun to encourage the renovation of abandoned buildings, the Tourism Ministry is offering a package of incentives, and entrepreneurs have at last noticed the growing need.
“The agent who showed me the site told me that everyone who saw it was immediately turned off,” says the 27-year-old entrepreneur Adir Amsalem. He and his friend Michael Pearlstein recently established the Cinema Hostel in the building that once housed the Orion movie theater, which ceased operation a quarter of a century ago.
“Everyone who visits the hostel and is interested in entrepreneurship dreams of this; when you manage a hostel it’s like you’re always on vacation,” Amsalem adds. The hostel, currently in a trial run, is due to open officially in December.
The idea of converting historic buildings in Jerusalem into hotels is not new. A plan to that effect was drawn up in the 1990s, even before the Tourism Ministry came on board, by the architect Dan Picker and the architect and historian David Kroyanker. “Hotels that are located in buildings that possess architectural beauty and a historic past constitute a source of great interest for investors and hotel management companies. These hotels have distinctive marketing advantages and attract tourists,” the plan stated. “There are many buildings of architectural value in downtown Jerusalem that are located in central and expensive places and whose potential purpose and use far exceed their current usage.”
The plan singled out seven potential sites for conversion into hotels. However, owing to the high cost of renovation, only two of the venues have been redeveloped: the historic Palace Hotel, which is now the luxurious Waldorf Astoria, and the 19th-century Templer movement school in the city’s German Colony, which has become the Orient Hotel.
In 2016, the Tourism Ministry increased grants for low-cost hotels in areas of national priority to 33 percent of the construction costs (28 percent after execution and another 5 percent when the hotel shows incoming tourism). In 2015, the ministry paid out grants for 219 rooms, but two years later 1,028 rooms benefited from the program.
A hotel campus
The French corporation AccorHotels operates two hotels of the Ibis network in Jerusalem. The first, Ibis Jerusalem City Center, with 124 rooms, is located on a side street just off Jaffa Road, the city’s main thoroughfare. A number of historic buildings are adjacent to the hotel, which is compressed into a small lot of 700 square meters and blends seamlessly into the old urban fabric.
According to the hotel’s designer, the architect Yaron Kuperstock, the work on the hotel went on for 20 years, on and off. “We had to prepare a specific CBA [City Building Plan, to enable construction] and later another one in order to raise it to eight stories instead of the original six,” he says. The tangled planning bureaucracy in Jerusalem results from the absence of an official master plan for the city. Two other historic buildings next to the hotel are also slated to become hotels, as part of the Isrotel chain. “We’ll have a hotel campus here,” Kuperstock says.
The simple design of the hotel’s exterior is fashioned from two types of Jerusalem stone. A passage through the hotel, with glass doors and walls, enables access from one street to another. “Architecturally, the transition between the streets is very real, even if it’s not officially a public passage,” Kuperstock notes. The design of the hotel’s interior, also quite simple in character, is in line with the color palette of world Ibis. The colors are black, white and red, and the furniture recalls the lightness of Ikea. Public spaces offer comfortable corners for work or a cup of coffee. Most of the tourists who lodge in the hotel, notes the manager, Aharon Bernstein, come alone, not as part of groups. “They want to visit the center of the city, they are hardly in the hotel,” he says. “Even when we’re at full occupancy we don’t feel it.”
Rife with history
Not far from there, on the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, another Ibis hotel, also designed by Kuperstock, is under construction. Slated to have 104 rooms, it is situated above a three-story corner building from the 1920s. The level of the stores – which have been vacated during the construction – remains unchanged. The ground floor also has an entrance to the hotel through a historic opening that leads to a small lobby. The next two floors have hotel rooms, and above them an orange-blue-green stripe marks the boundary of the historic structure. Above it, five new stories have been built, and a colorful recessed two-story cube on top contains a dining room, balcony and suites. The cube is covered with colored aluminum slats in shades that match the separation strip.
The hotel is situated in a building rife with history. In his book “The Jerusalem Triangle” (Hebrew), Kroyanker notes, “This is the handsomest of the buildings along both sides of Ben Yehuda Street. It bears an eclectic-oriental/neo-Renaissance design, with stylized balconies and arched shop entrances supported by stone columns.” For years, until it closed in 1988, a legendary store that sold tobacco and foreign newspapers, run by Gavriel and Hilda Levinson, operated at the site, Koryanker adds. On the first floor was the Savoy Restaurant, which appears in a list of recommended leisure sites on a 1946 British tourist map.
Selling an experience
The Cinema Hostel is just a few minutes away from the new hotel. The entrance is consistent with the proportions of the original entrance to the movie theater. The bays that held posters advertising the films that were playing will soon hold practical information. The visitor encounters initial testimony about the history of the site in the lobby, where a massive steel beam, which supported the roof of the movie theater, looms next to a colorful sofa. Outside, a cube with the letter M recalls that this was once the site of a McDonald’s, the first in Jerusalem, which even offered cheeseburgers. Malkie Khutoretsky, the hotel’s smiling marketing director – a new immigrant from Australia – relates that tourists still look for the fast-food place or ask about movie times, because of the design of the facade.
The building’s history is set forth on the Facebook page Al Hamakom [About the Place]. The movie theater was established in 1938, as a Jewish-Arab business of Daoud Dajani, the Dabah family and Ezra Mizrahi. The unusual façade of the Orion was designed by the architects Dan and Raphael Ben Dor, in the style of Radio City Music Hall in New York. The impressive glass exterior is still there. In 1943, the business partnership dissolved and the Mizrahi family became the sole owners. Later, in a pattern repeated across the country, the large 1,400-seat hall was split into small auditoriums and the theater lost its luster. In the late 1980s, during the “Shabbat wars,” the theater enjoyed something of a resurgence when it joined the wave of Saturday screenings under the guise of lectures for a members’ club.
The hostel has 170 beds, in rooms of 5 to 12 beds each, though there are also private rooms. The average cost per night is 100 shekels (about $27) in the shared rooms and four times as much in the private rooms. The entrepreneurs are planning an expansion to 300 beds in the future. Because they made few significant changes to the volume of the building, other than to add windows, the licensing process went quickly, taking less than a year. The hotel seeks to attract a young crowd, but not only them. “We offer guests a minimal room and a common space packed with attractions. We’re selling an experience,” the hotel’s co-owner, Adir Amsalem, asserts.
A rainbow of sofas beckon on the balcony above the entrance floor. Continuing inside, the central space contains a large number of places to sit and wide steps with colorful chairs, each one in a different style, and metal lamps hanging from the ceiling. There’s also another level for gaming and lounging, and above is a gallery in what was the movie theater’s projection room. Movies will be screened in the building’s reincarnation, too. Like many hostels in Israel and elsewhere, the public spaces will also be available to the general public, though the guests will get special rates.
According to the hostel’s designer, the architect Liat Argaman, the inspiration for much of the furniture, such as chairs bearing photographs of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe, was generated by a desire “to preserve the spirit of the period.” The plan is to install a few of the movie theater’s original seats in the lobby, she says, and to transform the large projection reel into a table. Pictures hanging on the walls evoke such films as “Back to the Future,” “Titanic” and “Trainspotting.”
Private and shared rooms
Not far from there, on the third floor of the British Mandate-period central post office, the Post Hostel has been operating since 2015. Renovation of the private rooms was recently completed: they are now compact galleries in which a couple with two children can lodge for $100 a night. The shared rooms contain eight to 12 beds each, separated by curtains and with storage space and a safe below the beds. Price per night: $25 to $30.
The large, inviting communal space was designed by Michael Azulay. In its center is a semicircular sofa, set off with ropes, and surrounded by seating of different kinds. There’s also a performance stage, a bar adorned with illustrated ceramic tiles, a billiard table and a balcony. Drawings on the colored walls are resonant with history – from the carrier pigeon to email.
According to the hostel’s manager, Alex Taliansky, they offer services over and above lodgings. “There are performances here twice a week,” he notes. “We offer beer and hummus workshops and also yoga classes. We have inexpensive, or free tours of the Old City, Mea She’arim [a Haredi neighborhood] and other places in the city.”
The blossoming of medium-level hotels in Jerusalem is basically a positive development. It attracts non-affluent tourists, renews historic buildings and is a shot of adrenaline for the city center. But there are also negative implications. The head of the Lev Ha’ir municipal directorate, Ofir Lang, observes that the center of the city will not be a success without a proper combination of tourism, business and residences. “In the long run, we see ongoing harm to the residents because of the priority being given to hotel rooms,” he cautions. “We saw that when we fought to have the Experimental School remain at its site in the center of the city – they wanted to turn it into a hotel. If the city center becomes solely tourism-oriented, there will be no residents to safeguard it.”
Lang is apprehensive that Jerusalem will become another Barcelona or Venice, where the historic center is devoid of inhabitants. “That could be a problem in a city like Jerusalem, which suffers from a sensitive security situation, because it’s the residents who are here in the difficult times,” he says. “They are the ones who safeguard the city’s security, keep the local business going and fight for what’s needed.”