Israeli Workers Discover 90-year-old Murals Mixing European and Mideast Motifs

Conservationists hope the Tel Aviv building's new owners will preserve all the paintings.

The 90-year-old paintings under layers of plaster and paint on the walls of a Tel Aviv building have amazed conservationists. But they are concerned about the murals' future: the building's owners are only required to preserve the paintings on the stairwell.

“We were very happy with the richness of the find, but we regret what we lost due to the owners' lack of awareness and interest,” says Tamar Tochler of the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites.

The murals, discovered during renovations of a 1921 building on 5 Nahalat Binyamin St., include landscapes and depictions of plants, flowers, fruits and trees.

“This is the first time wall paintings have been found in Tel Aviv that include landscapes," says Shai Farkash, the owner of a studio that conserves such works.

Last week Farkash's team was working overtime to uncover the murals, assisted by foreign students from the International Conservation Center in Old Acre. A conservation artist, Ben Buchenbacher, whom the building’s owners have commissioned to work on the paintings, calls it “a rescue mission.”

According to Noga Di Segni of the preservation society, landscape paintings have been found in other Israeli cities. “There probably were others like it elsewhere in the city that didn't survive,” she says.

The building, designed by the architect Yehoshua Zvi Tabachnik (Tavori), is known for the Balcony Pub that has occupied the second floor for years. “When we were having a good time at Balcony, we never imagined what was hiding behind these walls,” one conservation worker says.

It started with the Third Aliyah

Tabachnik came to Palestine from Odessa in 1919 with the wave of immigration known as the Third Aliyah. He arrived on the SS Ruslan, the ship that brought the poetess Rachel and the journalist Moshe Glickson, who became Haaretz's editor. Tabachnik left the country six years later and continued his architectural career in Brooklyn.

Tabachnik also planned the building across the street, known as the Palm House because of the magnificent palm tree covering the windows of two stories. His buildings were part of an original Land of Israel style that mixed Eastern and Western motifs.

Other buildings in this style, which can be seen on Nahalat Binyamin and nearby Allenby Street, feature seven-branched candelabra, Stars of David, palm-tree glass windows and wrought-iron railings depicting the raised corners of the biblical altar.

According to Shula Vidrich, a historian of Tel Aviv, the house was built for one Yehuda Skopasky, and five years later it was sold to an eye doctor. It changed hands in 1933 when brothers Chaim and Israel Brecht bought it, using the first floor for their velvet import business.

"We have to remember that there were wealthy bourgeois people who built fine houses with a great deal of charm,” Tochler says, referring to the pioneers here.

According to conservation artist Buchenbacher, “There's something very satisfying about being able to reveal these paintings, which belong to a mood we can’t really understand: a combination of European tradition with living in the Middle East.”

Now the new owners are renovating the building. To do so, conservation architect Nitza Metzger-Szmuk uses original sketches of the house, which are preserved in the municipal archives.

“We wouldn’t know what the original facade looked like without them,” she says. "The descendants of the building’s previous owners also have photographs."

Metzger-Szmuk has run into a familiar problem – her desire to preserve all the spectacular murals and the new owners' needs and demands. According to the conservation plan, she can't force the owners to preserve the paintings, only those in the stairwell -- a public space.

Metzger-Szmuk is trying to get the city to offer incentives to the new owners so they preserve all the murals. “We need cultural persuasion here,” she says.

Moti Milrod
Moti Milrod
Moti Milrod