The last thing you’d guess when you walk into the ground-floor apartment in the historic building at the corner of Pinsker and Idelson streets in Tel Aviv is that Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, and his wife Paula once rented here. In fact, the famous couple lived in a number of different rented apartments in the city before finally settling down in their home on Kakal Boulevard, later to be known as Ben-Gurion Boulevard. There are no pictures of the interior from the time when Ben-Gurion lived here, but one imagines it was also in the modest style found in the “Old Man’s” homes in Tel Aviv and Sde Boker.
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The documentation prepared by preservation architect Nitza Szmuk notes that the original tenants were not wealthy, like most of those who lived in buildings now slated for preservation, which in recent years have become coveted, and astronomically pricey real estate. “The air cabinet [open to the outside and used for keeping produce] that was in the kitchen on the top floor was used as a refrigerator until 1948,” she points out. But in its current incarnation, the apartment was renovated by Pitsou Kedem, favorite architect of Israel’s one-percenters, known for designing opulent, eye-popping villas. He remodeled the apartment for a couple who moved from the Sharon area to the big city after their children grew up and left home.
“If we were in London, this house would have probably been turned into a museum,” says Kedem. The owner, who preferred not to be identified, says she was looking for a historic building to move into. As to whether Ben-Gurion’s having lived there was a factor in their decision, she says, “We would have bought it anyway, regardless of Ben-Gurion. The building itself was what we were looking for, and it also came with the possibility of adding a basement to the apartment.”
The front sections of the building were designed by architect Joseph Berlin in the neoclassical style. Berlin also designed the Mograbi Cinema, as well as Mazeh 9, which now houses Tel Aviv’s Center for Young Adults. In the early 1930s sections were added on to the building, which were designed by architect Shlomo Gepstein in the Bauhaus style. So this building is one of the few in the city that combines the two styles.
“The seam between the two parts of the building reveals an essential stage in the emergence of the city of Tel Aviv and of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel,” writes Szmuk, who also oversees the building’s preservation. “Both architects are graduates of the Academy in St. Petersburg and represent opposite ends of the architectural spectrum in the early 20th century. Side by side, on one lot, stand two different schools of thought that fought over the public space in that era – Neoclassicism and Modernism.”
Ben-Gurion wasn’t the only famous person to live in the building. The records compiled by Szmuk show that painter Ziona Tajar and her son Avraham Katz-Oz, who eventually became an Labor Party MK and minister, also lived in the building at one time. Szmuk writes that the Painters’ Association met there on the top floor and Tajar also hosted the renowned sculptor Joseph Constant there. During the War of Independence, the building came under fire from the Hassan Bek mosque in Jaffa, and the residents built a protective wall out of sandbags. Judge Eliezer Malhi bought the entire property in the 1950s from owner Shlomo Zaltzman, and held onto it until the 2000s.
The apartment has two levels – the ground floor is 124 square meters and contains the kitchen, dining room and living room; the basement is 90 square meters and has a bedroom and a study. During the renovation work, new construction was erected to support the new space created between the ground floor and the basement, and the two floors are connected by steel steps.
The flooring style is reminiscent of old times. On the walls are photographs by Amit Geron and Ohad Matalon, and a work by Hilla Ben-Ari. A Marcel Wanders light fixture hangs from the ceiling. The initial plan was to have more rooms. The items in the home were selected in conjunction with the tenants. The objects are modern and clean in their artistic language, and contrast with the ornate design of the building’s façade. Only in the living room does one find some allusions to that ornate style.
Location: Tel Aviv
Year built: 1925
Year remodeled: 2014
Size: 215 square meters