A Visionary's Unfinished Contribution to Jerusalem's Skyline

The public buildings that Erich Mendelsohn, a German-Jewish architect, designed in the capital in the first half of the 20th century are thought to be a potential 'gold mine.'

For Erich Mendelsohn, the German-Jewish architect who immigrated to Palestine in 1934, the sky really was the limit. The prospering architect, whose ascent in Germany was halted when the Nazis came to power, renewed his energies in Palestine, enchanted by the prehistoric landscapes. But the revival was not to last. Only eight years passed until Mendelsohn left for the United States, where he remained until his death in 1953, when he was only 66.

After planning the Villa Schocken and the Schocken Library in the first half of the 1930s, Mendelsohn, following his natural inclination, moved on to design public buildings on a much larger scale. The Anglo-Palestine Bank, built on the initiative of Palestine’s British rulers, was designed between 1937 and 1939. When it was inaugurated, Jerusalem’s residents gazed in wonder at the city’s first “skyscraper,” reaching a height of seven whole stories. Located alongside the Generali Building and the central post office, both on Jaffa Street near the Jerusalem Municipality, the Anglo-Palestine Bank became part of an array of public institutions concentrating the country’s development in governance, economy, and trade.

The three modern buildings stood side by side, creating a unified and impressive facade beginning at the sidewalk’s “zero line” according to the European style of construction, rather than receding from the sidewalk like most Jerusalem buildings. The structure’s form was divided into two built blocks, in accordance with Jerusalem’s zoning laws, while its back part, looking out on Koresh Street, was only three stories high.

When it opened, the Davar newspaper reported that Jerusalem’s journalists, invited to the opening, “enjoyed the sight of spaciousness and comfort and good taste, reflected from every corner.” The building certainly marked a change in the role of the bank, which up till then had been on Mamilla Street − a mixed area that posed difficulties for the bank’s functioning, since aside from serving private clients it also served as the financial arm of the World Zionist Organization, financing land purchase and settlement construction.

The bank’s structure was impressive down to its smallest details: the main entrance doors were made of hammered brass, and were flanked by two flagpoles. Flags stretched from the door along the building’s entire length. Mendelsohn’s typical details could be seen in the treatment of the Jerusalem stone, in the shape of the banisters, the slender lintels and the row of round windows, reminiscent of port holes, which can also be found in the Weizmann House in Rehovot. The back facade facing Koresh Street featured small balconies, which softened the institutional scale and gave the offices a more personal character.

Most impressive was the large central hall, lit by soft natural light coming through the ceiling windows. A map of the Mediterranean Sea made of white metal was placed in the hall’s center, marked with a line stretching between London and Jerusalem. The hall was seven meters high and tiled with different kinds of marble: the pillars were black French marble while the wall tiles were pink and gray Haifa marble. Around the central space there was a gallery, all of which contributed to the sense of spaciousness and splendor required of a building of such importance.

In 1941 the Anglo-Palestine Bank became Leumi Bank, and the building itself underwent renovations in the mid-1980s. The changes mostly impaired the main hall, where a lowered acoustic ceiling made of an aluminum grate with neon lights was installed, which blocked the natural light streaming into the hall. In addition, the gallery was lowered and overlaid with imitation-wood plates.

Later, the bank’s central location, which had in some sense contributed to its status, became a problem as the building was intended for conservation. In 2003 Bank Leumi sought to build an addition on the building’s back part in the form of a glass-plated tower, a plan that aroused intense public opposition and was soon shelved.

Enter the entrepreneurs

Upon realizing they could not expand the building in its current structure, the owners sold it in 2009 to a group of Jerusalem entrepreneurs at a price much lower than its worth. Before the purchase had even been completed, the entrepreneurs had already declared their intent to remove Mendelsohn’s building from the preservation file in order to integrate its conservation with a new urban construction plan that would allow them to expand it.

In recent years the building is on lease to the finance and social affairs ministries on a five-year contract, with the option of continuing the lease for five more years. Although the entrepreneurs do not expect the government to leave the building any time soon, they do intend in the future to turn the building into a hotel and expand it so it can contain more rooms.

According to the group’s attorney, Ariel Azulay from the Azulay, Afik, Ettinger and Co. law firm ‏(the same firm that represents the plaintiffs against construction in Villa Schocken, mentioned in this column last week‏), the addition in question will be to “complete the cube” between the two central blocks and unify the building’s height so that it reaches seven stories from all sides. “In terms of Koresh Street, we understand that the preservation issue is less important,” says Azulay. Nevertheless, he stresses that his clients wish to conserve the original building’s architectural values, with its Jaffa Street facade and the interior space, and not to add more stories above its current height “unless they can agree with the conservationists that it doesn’t harm the building.”

Having learned from the experience of Bank Leumi and the opposition to its building plans, which Azulay defines as “architecturally preposterous,” the entrepreneurs have not yet submitted plans to the municipal and district committees since they wish, so they say, to reach an advance agreement with the preservationists and the municipality. For now, the building remains without change − and visitors to the welfare office can “enjoy” lowered ceilings, artificial tiling and temporary plaster walls, which conceal a magnificent interior built especially for public use.

Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus has undergone significant changes since it was built in 1939. In the 1940s, late additions were made to it planned by Mendelsohn himself, and in 1975 it underwent major renovations planned by Yaakov Rechter and Moshe Zarhi. Originally, the hospital campus was composed of long, solid modernist blocks, with lightweight connecting spaces that created inner courtyards. “The points of contact with the ground were very clean,” says architect Alona Shiftan. “Mendelsohn’s work in Palestine did not include construction on columns or hovering buildings. At Hadassah, there’s a sense of whole prisms growing out of the ground, which slowly break down in the direction of the desert.”

The late additions by Rechter and Zarhi enabled the hospital to better serve its patients, yet created a number of problems, the main one being the blockage of natural light and the creation of more dense and opaque spaces. According to Shiftan, the architects took on a private initiative in trying to preserve the building’s design values, but the lack of a solid body of knowledge in the field of preservation, in addition to the complex requirement of adapting the hospital to modern needs, caused difficulties. “Relatively speaking, they really did do an impressive job,” Shiftan says, “but many of the nuances, the details that were the core of Mendelsohn’s work, disappeared along the way.”

According to architect Shmulik Groag, it isn’t too late to make changes at Hadassah. As the preservation consultant for the Interior Ministry in the Haifa District, he says that in the case of Haifa’s Rambam Hospital, also planned by Mendelsohn, an urban construction plan was implemented which conditions further construction in the hospital compound on the conservation of the historical structure, so that as the renovations go forward, the original structure regains its original qualities − without impeding the hospital’s functions. According to Groag, the same mechanism can be implemented at Hadassah.

Bitterly disappointed

For Mendelsohn, the planning of the central, important buildings in Palestine was just the beginning of his mission. It was clear to him that he could change the landscape of Palestine if allowed to do so. Therefore, he considered the design of the Mount Scopus university complex as his supreme objective, and he prepared a comprehensive plan for the university. When the plan was rejected, and in his place four Israeli architects were appointed to plan the campus, he was bitterly disappointed. For him, planning was a total creation − a question of all or nothing, and therefore he chose not to be involved in the project at all. According to his letters from those years, he found the country was planned by people who demeaned and distorted its nature, and he felt deeply offended.

It is therefore not surprising that the perfectionist architect left Israel for America, broken-hearted, at the first opportunity, in 1942, when the German army was nearing its borders. First Germany, then Palestine − “fleeing all his life,” says Shiftan.

His career in the United States in the following years was not as glorious. Although he was on friendly terms with Frank Lloyd Wright, whom he admired, he was not accepted into the mainstream of the architectural establishment, and worked mostly within the Jewish community. Today, most of his collections and drawings are kept in a storeroom in the family’s home in San Francisco.

“In Israel they never forgave Mendelsohn for not being here during the War of Independence,” says Groag. “But such a scale of architecture hasn’t been seen here since.” The buildings Mendelsohn planned throughout the world have become monuments, yet in Jerusalem, where his most important works are concentrated, their value as tourist attractions is not fully realized.

“We have a gold mine here, and Jerusalem could really have created a point of attraction in the Western part of the city − to see the modern Jerusalem style, which was really a magnificent period,” says Groag. He contends that although the buildings are intended for preservation, they can easily be turned into tourist sites “by creating a map making information accessible, that’s the strength of it. It’s a very small act of interpretation alongside the preservation − that’s still possible, it’s not too late.”

Yael Engelhart