Tel Aviv’s American Colony Comes Back to Life

A stroll through one of the city's best-kept secrets offers a glimpse into the 19th century when American and German settlers lived there.

Every city on earth has a neighborhood like this, where a walking tour quickly becomes a real-estate survey. One moment you notice the architecture, then the potential capital gains. “Oh, we could have bought all this for pennies," you might say. "How foolish that we missed out.”

Tel Aviv's American Colony, between the Florentin quarter and Jaffa, is that kind of neighborhood. You don't need to be a real-estate genius to see that this small area, home to workshops, car-repair shops and ruins, will soon be renovated and prove a boon to investors.

At the moment, the neighborhood has both crumbling ruins and new villas with money coming out of the minimalist metal-framed windows (what Israelis call "Belgian windows.") And there are meticulously preserved 150-year-old homes next to four-story buildings with luxury apartments.

Plenty of big-name Israelis live there. “I’ve come full circle because it was exactly here that the Keren restaurant once stood,” says television chef Haim Cohen, who bought an apartment here.

The area at the corner of Auerbach and Eilat streets is called the Keren Compound — giving the restaurant, which closed a decade ago, a place in eternity.

My walking tour started at the seashore near the Beit Gidi Etzel Museum; at this spot Americans arrived in 1866. The group of 157 people, led by the eccentric (some say charlatan) preacher George Adams, left the United States, where the Civil War had just ended. They carried with them their faith, sailing 42 days to the disease-ridden Middle East.

For about a month the Americans lived in a tent camp on the beach north of Jaffa; Tel Aviv was established only in 1909. When they received permission from the authorities, they put together the wooden homes they had brought on board.

A short walk up Eilat Street leads to the intersection with Auerbach Street. Turn right and pass the entrance to the Keren Compound. You'll pass the Ackley Norton House (4 Auerbach Street), one of the first 10 wooden homes the Americans built. Each has two floors, a front porch and lovely wooden carvings. This is where the Keren restaurant was located.

Next door (6 Auerbach Street) is the first stone house in the colony. With three floors, it served as the Grand Hotel, though the name was later changed to the Hotel Jerusalem. Across the street from the hotel, a metal barrier blocks the view, but the building there is impressive.

Enter the Templers

The next house on the right side is Immanuel House (8 Auerbach Street), on the corner of Be’er Hoffman Street. This building, which could easily compete with any historical Tel Aviv structure, has had lots of ups and downs.

Most of the Americans returned to Maine just two years after they arrived. Many of them fell ill; several died. The German Templers bought Immanuel House and used it as a school. Its heyday came in 1878 when Russian Baron Plato von Ustinov (the grandfather of actor Peter Ustinov) bought it, added a floor and planted a stunning tropical garden.

The agronomist who planned the garden, one of the first graduates of the Mikveh Israel agricultural school, planted the magnificent Bengal ficus tree, which provides shade there to this day. The garden gave its name to the hotel the baron opened in 1895, Hotel du Parc. Three years later, Kaiser Wilhelm stayed there.

A community of Messianic Jews has been using Immanuel House since 1970. There's a guest house, a library and community center. The garden is paved, and though the spot is nice, it isn't particularly green. Next to the house on the other side of Be'er Hoffman Street is a Lutheran church with a tower. It can be visited every day for free between 10 A.M. and 2 P.M.

At 15 Be'er Hoffman St. there is a pretty brown wooden building called the Maine Friendship House. This house too was brought by the American colonists and was originally used by the Wentworth family and later as a guesthouse by the Franks, a German Templer family. This is the third hotel in this tiny area, after the Jerusalem Hotel and the Hotel du Parc. The American Colony was once a tourism power.

A woman named Nicole then opens the doors of the small museum at the Maine Friendship House; she doesn't want to give her last name. The tour through the house includes the large basement, where you can watch a 12-minute video on the history of the house and the neighborhood.

The first floor contains Templer objects from the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Nicole, who is originally from Germany ("Just like the Templers," she laughs), is volunteering in Israel. She wants to learn about the history of the Templers and runs the museum, whose owners, Jean and Reed Holmes, spend about half the year in Maine.

The Holmes bought the wooden house and the house next to it in 2001 and saved it from a demolition order. The elderly couple document the neighborhood's history and have even found a family connection – Mark Wentworth, a neighborhood founder, is a distant cousin of Reed Holmes. (Visits to the museum can be coordinated by phone at 03-681-9225.)

At least one settler made money

From the small museum turn left from Auerbach Street to the northern part of Be'er Hoffman Street and look at Ustinov House, a beautiful three-story home made from stone at 9 Be'er Hoffman. Then it's back down the sloping street and past the Lutheran church. There are two beautiful wooden homes where people still live today, with children playing outside.

This is the Rolla Floyd House, or the Theodor Sandel House, as it is also known, at 17 Be'er Hoffman St. Floyd and his wife were among the Americans who founded the colony.

Floyd was the one American settler who succeeded financially. He brought his home from the United States and even a carriage. Soon he acquired two horses and inaugurated the first transportation line from Jaffa to Jerusalem.

When most of the group left the country, the Floyds moved to Jerusalem. Sandel, a Templer architect, bought the Floyd's Jaffa home and lived there until 1880. Other members of the Templer community lived there until they were expelled from the country during World War II.

Be'er Hoffman Street turns sharply to the left and becomes Eliyahu Kashek Amikam Street. Some 50 meters down the incline a large compound is being built called The Village.

The American influence is still there, though these gray duplex houses are a bit depressing, like an out-of-place impersonation of the 150-year-old wooden homes that were brought by the Americans with front balconies and white parapets.

Then it's back to Eilat Street and west toward the sea. Then south onto Nitzana Street. From there turn west onto Segula Street. In the center of a small square sits a modest playground. Surrounding it, small businesses are flourishing – galleries, designers' offices, small fashion stores and Cafelix.

Cafelix (15 Segula St.) is a large shop largely dedicated to roasting and grinding fresh coffee. The owner, Philipp Schaefer, is also a German native. Next to the counter at the entrance you can order a cup of espresso and soak up the atmosphere.

Moshe Gilad