Jaffa Residents Battle Planned Demolition of Historic Bank Building

The building was home to the Anglo-Palestine Bank, one of the most important financial institutions in the Jewish community of Palestine before the founding of Israel.

The Anglo-Palestine Bank Building in Jaffa.
David Bachar

Jaffa residents have appealed the decision of the Tel Aviv planning and building committee to demolish the building of Anglo-Palestine Bank, which later became Bank Leumi, at 1 Jerusalem Boulevard in Jaffa.  Similar to many other historic buildings, the bank building has never been declared a structure for preservation. Residents filed the appeal along the architects association.

Historic buildings in south Tel Aviv are protected partially as part of specific building plans, but the citywide historic preservation plan does not include buildings south of Eilat Street, once considered the border between Jaffa and Tel Aviv. The preservation plan is not scheduled to be revised and expanded, because the municipality fears suits from the private owners of buildings that could be slated for preservation.

The original Anglo-Palestine Bank building was planned by architect Joseph Berlin, who is also known as the architect of the Mugrabi Cinema and the twin buildings on Mazeh Street. Bank Leumi sold the building to private developers  a few years ago. The developers, the Einav Hahetz company and Yossi Avrahami Civil Engineering Works, hired the services of the Bar Orian Architects firm, which planned an eight and a half story residential building with 69 apartments for the site, a plan that meets the city's master plan for the location.

In a conservation survey conducted at the building as part of a Tel-Aviv University course on conservation taught by conservation architect Amnon Bar Or, the students said that the structure was built in a neo-classical style and was one-story tall. A second story was added on to the roof in 1929. The building was deserted when the Arab Revolt broke out in 1936. In the 1950s Bank Leumi began to operate in the building.

The conservation file assembled by the students contains photos showing the building's impressive vaults and beautiful carpentry. These have been obscured by renovations over the years. Today, the building is sealed shut.  

During a hearing at the local planning committee, it was claimed that architects looked into keeping the original structure and building over it. City Engineer Oded Gevuli said that this was not possible since the resulting building would inevitably be out of proportion to the rest of the buildings in the area.
 
"This appeal deals with a decision, which has a 'black flag' over it, a decision handed down trampling the heritage of the Jewish settlement of Israel and destroying an important cultural site illegally," the appeal filed by attorney Guy Meduni Landau said, "This, when the building in question is one of Tel-Aviv's delightful architectural treasures."

Tamar Tochler, who heads the Council for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites' Tel-Aviv District, wrote in an opinion that was attached to the appeal: "There is no reason to approve the demolition of this building. Tel-Aviv can be proud of the conservation projects of its central banks, like the conservation of the Discount Bank building and its opening to the public. So that this structure, in which the most important bank before the founding of Israel operated, is deserving of similar treatment."

Conservation architects Amnon Bar Or told Haaretz: "Anything done with regard to conservation in Jaffa is mere lip service, only serving to placate the Arab or disadvantaged population of Jaffa. Even conservation that is done isn't really conservation, and documentation isn't really documentation. With every International Style building in Tel-Aviv we are overburdened, but no-one is looking out for Jaffa."

The spokesperson for the planning council declined to comment since the regional committee is scheduled to discuss the appeal. A letter obtained by Haaretz reveals Tel Aviv Regional Planner Naomi Angel's opinion on the matter. "I'd like to express my reservations for the proposal to demolish a structure with architectural, historic and urban value, even before studying the subject comprehensively," Angel wrote the city engineer. She stated that "We need to think about promoting a conservation plan for Jaffa or at a minimum for Jerusalem Blvd., which has many buildings with architectural and historic value, which are not protected by a conservation plan." She also criticized the new plan, saying "In my opinion...  there needs to be an in-depth discussion on the subject of the building's integration into the historic fabric and to avoid the putting up generic buildings, which could muddy Jaffa's special identity."

Architect Gidi Bar Oriyan said Sunday that the developer that purchased the building two years ago agreed to conservation at the outset as long as his building rights aren't hindered. "He bought a building that wasn't slated for conservation and still he agreed that we look into it. We suggested a nine-story building both along Eilat St. and Jerusalem Blvd. – instead of six stories along Eilat St. and nine along Jerusalem Blvd., but the city preferred demolition."

According to Bar Oriyan, in order to preserve buildings in Jaffa, the conservation rules that apply in central Tel Aviv should be put in place in Jaffa too. "If you can transfer building rights in central Tel-Aviv, you should be able to do so in Jaffa too." As per the criticism levied against the style of the new design, he added "I am opposed to the used of the term 'Jaffa style' that has all kinds of unsuccessful buildings like 'Hazrot Yafo' being built in its name. Also, Jerusalem Blvd. isn't exactly like ancient Jaffa, it has housing projects and newer buildings along it too."

The Tel Aviv municipality responded, saying: "The subject was studied by the conservation department and the building was found unworthy of conservation. Additional plans for conservation in the city – including in Jaffa – are looked into both from a planning perspective and from an economic perspective."