Jerusalem's Old Railway Station Back on Track

The city's 19th-century abandoned station is to be transformed into a cultural and culinary complex, which developers promise will open on Shabbat and will serve non-kosher food.

More than two years ago, the Hatachana shopping and restaurant complex opened in south Tel Aviv in the buildings of the old Jaffa railway station, whose tracks used to lead to Jerusalem. After its launch, the station, which had been abandoned and neglected for decades and which underwent comprehensive renovation, became a polished and stylish compound that attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors in its first months. The success of the new complex, known simply as “Hatachana” (The Station), is controversial: Supporters say it is a unique and attractive project that offers a flourishing economic model on the seam between Tel Aviv and Jaffa, while its detractors argue that Hatachana has an inauthentic, elitist feel.

The Templer, Ottoman and Mandatory buildings of the Jaffa railway station have already grown accustomed to the sight of locals and tourists browsing displays of designer jewelry at Hatachana, but at the other end of the former track stands the Jaffa station’s deprived twin - the old train station in Jerusalem.

Ever since 1998, the year the last train clattered out, the terminal between the Hebron Road and the Bethlehem Road, not too far from the Cinematheque, has been largely abandoned. In 2005, the railway station in the Malha neighborhood became the final destination of the train to Jerusalem.

However, the old Jerusalem station - which this year celebrates its 120th birthday - is now taking on a new appearance, albeit with little fanfare. It emerges that this coming April, Jerusalem will have a station complex of its own. In Jerusalem argot, the site is called “the first station” and it is destined to serve as a cultural, culinary and historical complex - the first of its kind in the city. Though, as in its Tel Aviv counterpart, there will be passenger cars that go nowhere, an “authentic” train engine and a 4,000-square-meter area covered in wooden decking, the developers are promising it will not be like Hatachana.

This weekend - as part of the annual “Houses from Within” event in which all kinds of usually locked-up Jerusalem buildings throw their doors open to the public - the complex will be open for visits and tours during which the station’s history, and the plans for its future, will be presented.

Stretching the ‘Cultural Mile’

A decade ago, a residential plan was developed for the Jerusalem station site, to the south of the original Ottoman station building, but it was not implemented. Five years went by until the Jerusalem Development Authority approached Israel Railways, which owns the site, with a proposal to convert it into a cultural and leisure complex. “This is a national preservation site that has been neglected for years,” says the development authority’s deputy CEO Anat Tzur. “It was not fitting, neither from a historical perspective, nor of course for a capital city, for such a special place to look like that.”

Preservation architect Moshe Shapira, who also serves as a preservation adviser in the Interior Ministry’s Tel Aviv district, was called upon to document the current state of the old train station. His plan also recommended preserving a large building to the south of the station that served as warehouses during the British Mandate era. “We have residential buildings [in Jerusalem, but] there is no industry and trade, and these spaces [such as the old train station] provide us with an experience that in any other city would be familiar and trivial,” he explains. “It is an industrial story that is a very important element in the city’s history.”

The new complex will be operated by a group of developers who were selected in a tender issued by Israel Railways. The group consists of Assaf Hemo, Erez Navon and Avi Morduch - who was involved in Tel Aviv’s Hatachana project. Shapira has worked together with preservation architect Eyal Ziv, who was also a partner in the planning of Hatachana. The developers will preserve, operate and maintain the place for a period of 10 years and in exchange will receive the proceeds from rent and income from special events. At the end of the decade, the site will revert to Israel Railways control and the station’s use will be at its discretion.

The developers are branding the new complex “an encounter between culture and the culinary.” It is located within an area that the municipality terms the “Cultural Mile,” which includes the Jerusalem Theater, the Hansen complex ?(the former leper colony, where there are also preservation and development works under way to establish a media center?), the Khan Theater, the Cinematheque and the Sherover Cultural Center now under construction in the Abu Tor neighborhood. In addition, the station is adjacent to Liberty Bell Park and the train-track park - a joint project by Israel Railways and the Jerusalem municipality. This park, which is three-quarters complete, is located along the route of the train line between Malha and the old train station, serving as a promenade for pedestrians, runners and cyclists.

Completing the picture is the old station’s relative proximity to the Old City - close enough to attract tourists, but far away enough not to be included in the religious-pilgrimage narrative. In fact - unusually for Jerusalem - the developers are promising the complex will be open on Shabbat and most of the restaurants will serve nonkosher food.

“We are creating a unique leisure experience,” says Ofer Berkovich, the director of strategy and content for the complex on behalf of the developers. “You’ve gone to a movie at the Cinematheque, and you’ve gone on for a meal here. You’ve come out of the Jerusalem Theater, and you’ve gone on for a beer or a coffee here - and this creates a continuous cultural experience from a spatial point of view. Both the surrounding establishments and the station will benefit.”

In addition to three restaurants and a food market that will be established in the Mandatory warehouses, the Ottoman building will contain culinary workshops, a pub and an information center, from which tours of the complex and areas outside it will begin. There will also be a 160-square-meter art gallery, which will function as a small theater as needed. A series of stands will serve a marketplace and small metal and glass structures will be erected on the train track for additional food stalls, sports equipment stores and activities for children. The developers are also planning a series of musical, literary and artistic events.

Berkovich is not deterred by the current lack of outdoor culture among Jerusalemites, who are mostly seen scurrying home, laden with shopping from the Mahaneh Yehuda Market. “I think this will get a lot of people out of the house,” he says. “Maybe until now there hasn’t been a location that is sufficiently cut off and convenient enough. In the end, it is the largest city in Israel and 3.4 million tourists come there every year - I am assuming some of them will pass through the station at one point or another.”

‘Let the enlightened rejoice’

The train station, where tens of thousands of visitors are expected to munch their way through gourmet meals, has witnessed, thus far in its 120 years, two empires and one state. The driving force behind its construction in 1892 was developer Yosef Navon, together with a French company - after decades of attempts to build it. Among others involved in the plan were the German missionary Conrad Schick, Moses Montefiore and the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps - who developed the Suez Canal. The railway’s planner wanted to lay the tracks up to the Old City, but the Ottomans did not agree and the station was moved to the Hill of Evil Counsel, upon which the Abu Tor neighborhood now stands.

The original railway station consisted of a two-story building with one-story wings to the sides, a mechanism for turning the trains around, an open-sided shelter and a large water tank. Its architecture was influenced by 19th-century European and Templer buildings. The station building is identical in shape to its brother on the fringes of Jaffa, except for the building material, which was determined by what was locally available - limestone in Jerusalem and calcareous sandstone in Jaffa. During the station’s construction, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who saw the laying of the track as a symbol of the victory of enlightenment, coined the Hebrew word for train, “rakevet.” A few weeks before the dedication ceremony, he published a paean of praise in his newspaper Ha’or: “The roar of the engine is the roar of the victory of education over ignorance, work over sloth, wisdom over vanity, progress over backwardness, the mind over foolishness, a victory of the pure and health-giving spirit over the spirit of polarization and bitterness, a victory of the educated over the foolish. Let those who are enlightened rejoice, the educated of Jerusalem!”

A single track was laid along 88 kilometers, and the train passed over 176 bridges on its way from Jaffa to Jerusalem. On September 26, 1882, sheep were slaughtered on the track for good luck and the first engine chugged out of Jaffa toward Jerusalem, pulling coaches adorned with Imperial Ottoman flags. The laying of the track shortened the journey between the two cities considerably - from 12 hours by horse-drawn coach to only four hours.

With the conquest of Palestine by the British in 1920, the railway was improved. The British linked the track to the Cairo-Beirut track and the track of the Jezreel Valley train, all of them operated by Palestine Railways.

Under the Mandate, the Jerusalem station site was enlarged, and warehouses were added alongside it. The station operated almost without interruption until the establishment of the state, when traffic on the line ceased due to the War of Independence in 1948. The first official Israeli train, which traveled to Jerusalem on August 7, 1949, hauled a symbolic freight of flour, cement from the Nesher quarry and Torah scrolls. The stone signs at the station gates, which displayed Jerusalem’s name in French and Arabic, were plastered over and replaced with a Hebrew inscription in an identical style. Israel Postal Company warehouses, the Israel Electric Corporation and the fuel companies operated nearby, as well as the Government Printing Office - which was served by a special branch of tracks that went right to the entrance and carried the heavy rolls of paper.

As time passed, the number of passengers on the train to and from Jerusalem declined sharply, and for many years the train ran only once a day. In 1998, Israel Railways decided to shut down the station. Its closure led to neglect of the building and, over the years, it was plundered and most of the wooden items there were taken. In those years, the building served as a shelter for homeless people and became a favorite canvas for graffiti. A raging fire incinerated a great many of the wooden beams, but the station survived.

When architects Ziv and Shapira first came there, they found buildings from various periods with additions built on over the years. Careful examination of the various layers helped to establish that the offers a cross section through time. “We are talking about construction carried out over a broad spectrum of years,” explains Shapira. “Many decisions were necessary [to determine] the range of preservation, reconstruction and renovation. The compound was Ottoman and Mandatory and, to this, the Israeli story was added.”

Glorification of nostalgia?

The train station absorbed many shocks throughout its history. Part of the track was dismantled in World War I and the line ceased to operate. During the time of the Mandate, the Jewish underground carried out attacks on the railway line and on the station itself. “The ravages of time are everywhere but here, because of the geopolitics of Jerusalem, the place was simply ruined,” says Shapira. Thus, for example, an additional layer of 60-centimeter-thick concrete was poured on the roof of the Ottoman building by the British, apparently to protect the site, which was considered a strategic target in World War II when Italian planes strafed the country.

Because of the many changes, the station’s appearance has never been uniform. Shapira relates, for example, that six different kinds of wooden ornamentation were found at the site. “In the end, we chose one of them, and we said that what’s important isn’t to freeze time the way it once was. So there isn’t historical precision here, but there is the design of something that could have been here. More strict schools of preservation will come along and see this as a deception but I think the station is a symbol.”

A kind of faded turquoise-colored paint found on the columns and the window and door frames was also chosen from among a number of colors that adorned the station at one time or another. This, too, was a decision that has more to do with branding the complex than with preserving the station. “Clearly, I would have preferred the space to have remained as it was, without additions and subdivisions,” says Shapira when asked his opinion of the way the developers are using the site, “but you can see what happens to a place that hasn’t functioned for a number of years: Another two years of dithering and people would have demolished the place and nothing would have remained here. So when people are doing esoteric things like eating a good steak and enjoying the aesthetic values around them, it develops the Jerusalemites’ sensitivity to preservation, which isn’t always strong. Use is the best preservation, even if during the course of it you take a lot of specific decisions that could be argued about.”

These projects, however charming they may be, are arguably an unpleasant glorification of nostalgia - a forced combination of conflicting histories. “There is something a little kitschy when you try to reconstruct the feeling of the past,” says architect and researcher David Kroyanker, but he adds, “The fact is that it attracts people. The fact is that it gives a sense of what it used to be. The success of these places has to be multidisciplinary: An attractive place is a commercial place. If it isn’t commercial it doesn’t make money. Therefore I am cautious about criticism. It is necessary to encourage people, phenomena and processes like these. This is very important. It is possible to destroy everything easily.”

Yael Engelhart