Earmarking Some Well-buildings for Preservation May Doom the Rest

The iconic Palestinian mansions that evolved from wells irrigating orchards are mostly worth preserving.

A Tel Aviv municipality committee is looking for a way to preserve 19 "well houses" (Batei Be'er) scattered across Jaffa and southern Tel Aviv.

Last week, the city's Local Planning and Construction Committee ordered that a plan be prepared to do just that. Well houses are agricultural structures that were established in Palestine in the 19th century around wells, especially near the orchards of Jaffa.

The committee's decision is a precedent-setting one that provides a municipal seal of approval for the architectural quality of the well houses and the rich cultural heritage that evolved around them. Moreover, it promotes discussion of an unfamiliar chapter in the history of Jaffa's Arab residents.

This is in contrast to the overwhelming majority of preservation plans in Israel that relate exclusively to the Zionist narrative, and ignore Palestinian history. At least in this respect, this is a brave decision that deserves to be commended.

However, a new preservation plan may in the end also present the greatest threat to the Well Houses. Of the 70 or so buildings that survived, only 19 have been designated for preservation; another 22 have been designated for documentation and the fate of these structures is unclear. Thus, the Tel Aviv municipality may, in effect, be authorizing the razing of the remaining internationally-recognized, unique architectural treasures.

A modest beginning

Back in the 19th century, European demand for Jaffa-brand Valencia and Shamouti oranges brought a lot of money into Palestine and made several Jaffa families of fruit-growers quite wealthy. The humble well houses that provided the water to irrigate the orchards were expanded over the years to include stables, warehouses, packing houses and finally, luxurious mansions that offered refuge from Jaffa's crowded streets.

Before the establishment of Israel, there were some 200 well houses still functioning near the orchards of Jaffa. They were clearly marked on the maps drafted by British Mandate cartographers, which included the exact location of the well, the irrigation ditches and the water reservoirs that became a favorite leisure spot for Jaffa's well-to-do residents during the hot summers.

The well houses, with stone walls concealing exotic gardens, were preserved, among other places, in the drawings of Nachum Gutman and the writings of contemporary writers and poets. One famous well house is the Al-Aza family mansion on Ben Zvi Street, which has an impressive complex of buildings and agricultural facilities, including a spacious villa with large guest rooms and original building details such as French-made roof tiles. Under Israeli ownership, it became a training complex for the pre-military Gadna training program; the main living reception area, with marble pillars and frescoed ceilings and floors, was converted into a shooting range.

Another well house is the Anton Ayub house at the edge of the Tel Kabir neighborhood, which was also known as Beit Habiluim, because it was once inhabited by members of the Zionist Bilu movement. Thanks to the efforts of preservation organizations, the house was saved from destruction at the last minute, and a tunnel was dug underneath it for the western Rishon Letzion train line.

Near the old Central Bus Station stands the home of the Rochs, a family of Christian merchants, which once sprawled across hundreds of dunams of orchards and is notable for its fine detail and woodwork. Today it is hidden behind a row of ramshackle stalls and building additions. The well has long been sealed and the entire building appears on the verge of collapse.

Silent testimony

After the establishment of the state, the orchards of Jaffa were abandoned and so too the well houses. Those that weren't destroyed remain in rickety condition as silent testimony to the architectural, social and cultural heritage that was once an integral part of the flourishing of Arab Jaffa during the first half of the 20th century.

Architects Naor Mimar, Amnon Bar Or and Sergio Lerman, together with a large group of students from Tel Aviv University's School of Architecture, share credit for the rediscovery of the well houses. Mimar first became interested in the topic in 2006 when bulldozers razed a well house near the home where he was born, on Jaffa's Gaza Street. After he tried, to no avail, to persuade the authorities not to destroy the historical structure, he decided to prepare an independent survey of well houses that would consider their history.

Bar Or and Lerman, who ran a preservation studio at the university, took up the topic as part of a research project on the Arab history of Jaffa. Over the course of four semesters, they mobilized students to research and document dozens of well houses (full disclosure: the writer was a student at the studio ).

In February 2008, the first exhibition on the well houses was shown in a space on Rothschild Boulevard, after which the Tel Aviv municipality began to recognize the importance of the well houses, and even began looking into ways to preserve them.

A disappointing plan

The guidelines for the future preservation plan is based on a survey by Dr. Avi Sasson, an expert on the history of architecture. But those architects who first discovered these Tel Aviv treasures say it is already clear the plan does not go far enough.

First, the plan covers only 19 well houses, and most of them are already protected - either by other urban master plans, such as a master plan for a park to be built near the Russian Church, or because they are located on land owned by the Tel Aviv municipality. The plan also refrains from protecting well houses that are now privately owned homes.

"There should be a discussion based on the buildings' historical and environmental importance and not on the ownership of the plots they are on," said Mimar. "It's clear to me that there was serious work done, but if in the end it was decided to preserve only publicly-owned buildings, this is a problem. Why in the center of the city is it possible to demand preservation of privately-owned buildings, but not in the south?"

Preservation is also closely connected to the network of public buildings in the less exclusive areas of Tel Aviv. If the city had chosen to purchase and preserve the buildings, it could have created a new network of public buildings in the southern neighborhoods and in Jaffa.

Bar Or is also disappointed with the number of houses included in the plan. "The municipality chose to approve the unthreatening homes that were earmarked for preservation in other plans. They are earmarking most of the well houses for destruction, and thereby undermining their cultural importance as a unique phenomenon. It's a ploy, even though I can't help but smile a little in satisfaction."

Yirmi Hoffman, the director of the Tel Aviv municipality's preservation department describes the plan as "revolutionary and dramatic."

"It relates to a type of architecture and a type of population that have until now not been adequately addressed," he says, adding that the houses selected for preservation are the best of their type. "It's not everything and it's not enough, but it's a lot. I think that just the change in approach to this topic is the important thing."

However, Hoffman does acknowledge that the limited number of well houses earmarked for preservation is a result of lawsuits filed against the municipality over its larger preservation plan that covers some 1,000 buildings. That plan is now being challenged in legal suits, to the total tune of about NIS 2.5 billion. Thus the city is a bit gun-shy about planning for more preservations. Hoffman believes there could be a chance of saving a few more well houses in future urban master plans.

Mimar says "there is a lot more history and architectural tradition in southern and eastern Tel Aviv that needs to be researched and documented, and perhaps also preserved. No one has even scratched the surface yet in order to find out what is there."