House Call: Preserving Historical Elements in an Old-new Jaffa Home

Gad Sassower's home includes a wooden table from 1900, a 1937 radio, and lamps and kitchen equipment from the 1940s and ‘50s.

Location: Sha’arei Nicanor Street, Jaffa
Floor: Top
Area: 250 square meters
Amount of time in house: 3 months

When Gad Sassower immigrated to Israel three and a half years ago, the first apartment he lived in belonged to his grandparents, in the Basel compound in Tel Aviv. Two years later he decided to look for another apartment. He walked around the streets of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and when he found a building he liked, he asked whether there was an apartment for sale. A year and a half ago he arrived at Sha’arei Nicanor Street in Jaffa where he saw an old two-story house that was apparently built during the latter part of the 19th century. One of its facades was modelled on an early-Renaissance Italian palazzo. Another included windows with arches typical of an Arab home.

He discovered that the top floor was for sale. The apartment had once been a synagogue and also, during the British Mandate, part of the Italian consulate.

“I wasn’t interested in consulting a surveyor, nor in checking with friends as to whether or not it was worthwhile,” he says. “I just wanted it, it was love at first sight. Every room had its own, original tiled floor, the majority of which were well preserved. You could see that everything was in place. I was less interested in the view: I’m from London, I don’t know what the sea is. I loved the proportions of the rooms, even though the doors between them were missing; there was a marvelous sense of symmetry.”

Sassower, 45, was born in London. His parents, Holocaust survivors, immigrated to Israel after World War II, and after serving in the Israel Defense Forces they studied architecture at the Technion − Israel Institute of Technology. Afterward, they moved to London.

At 19 Gad left his parents’ home, and for 10 years lived in the same neighborhood until he found an unrestored house in Islington, which at the time was not considered a popular locale. “It was a cheap, attractive house that nobody wanted to live in. It took a long time to renovate, but the process sparked an interest and afterward I began to restore period houses, shops, etc. I like to give a house back its soul, let it breathe again. The house ultimately says ‘thank you.’”

Years earlier, Sassower studied and worked at Sotheby’s auction house, where he acquired a knowledge of the history of art, which was to greatly assist his flair for renovation and preservation. “The work in a place like Sotheby’s trains your eyes,” he says.

Over time he became a collector and dealer in items made of Bakelite, and eventually also wrote and edited books on the subject.

“It was the first man-made material that allowed the mass production of virtually any shape,” he says. “I traveled all over the world, and everywhere I looked for Bakelite items, I was enchanted by the colors and the variety of possibilities this material offers. I sold items to museums, I had good customers, it was fun, but I realized that dealing with Bakelite would not provide a long-term living, even if money was never my motivation and I always aspired to do what I enjoy.”
Sassower was married for a short time to an Israeli woman, and the two divorced about five years ago. He still has a business in London and visits the city several times a year.

“It’s hard at the age of 40-something to move to a new country,” he says. “I remember that when I was in my apartment in London, I looked out the window and I felt that I had done everything I wanted to do, but I needed a change of atmosphere. I had friends, a good lifestyle, everything was fine, I didn’t run away from anything, I simply wanted a change of view.

“I have relatives who live in Israel, as well as friends I’ve met over the years. I like the energy here, there’s the possibility of building a family, and I love the change in the weather,” he says with a smile. “I’ve had enough with the rain and the gray all around. The people here are very friendly, as you would expect of a warm and vibrant Mediterranean country. In general it’s very nice here in Jaffa. There’s a sense of community here which doesn’t really exist in Tel Aviv. I like the diverse population, which includes Christians, Muslims, Jews, fishermen, artists, etc. It’s nice. You walk down the street and there’s always someone who says ‘shalom’ to you. You don’t feel alone.”

A passion for heritage

The entrance to Sassower’s 250-square-meter apartment is via stairs that lead to the balcony. On the left side is the guest wing, and on the right the rest of the house: a large bedroom, a large bathroom, an office, a living room, another bedroom, a kitchen and five balconies. Each room has a high, 4.5-meter ceiling. The large back balcony faces south and west, and overlooks the Ajami neighborhood and the sea, which can also be seen from both bedrooms and the bathroom.

Sassower says the building was constructed in stages, beginning in the mid-19th century with later additions up until the 1920s. The various time periods in which the house was built, and its various historic uses, also influenced his choice of furniture.

He attempted to reflect and combine periods: For example, several of the Bakelite items he collected over the years are scattered throughout the house, including a 1945 French lamp with a folding mechanism and a 1937 radio that looks like an old building. The wooden table in the office is from 1900 and the bathtub is a copy of a similar one from the same period, as are several of the Italian lighting fixtures. On the walls of the house there are old posters of Jaffa and old advertisements for El Al, the Tel Aviv Zoo and so on.

In the bedroom hangs a vintage Hussars jacket he bought in London’s Covent Garden when he was 16, and in the center of the room there is a large wooden bed; when you lie down on it you can look out at the sea. The furniture in the living room is equally diverse: two Danish, 1950s leather-covered sofas, a 1900s Chippendale dining table and chairs, a Thonet rocking chair, an 1880s Aesthetic movement sideboard and desk, and three glass chandeliers. The electrical appliances in the kitchen blend in with the mixed atmosphere and create a feeling of the ‘50s. The interior gives one a rather colonial feeling, even slightly kitschy, but because of the meticulous choice of details and the space here, this doesn’t seem overdone.

“My parents studied Mies Van de Rohe, they were fans of ‘form follows function,’” says Sassower. “My father calls my bathtub kitsch. My folks have no room for adornments and decorations, it’s not them at all.”

The meticulous preservation process took a year and a half. Sassower did not make do with preserving the exterior, as required by law, but also restored the various elements related to the interior design of the house − down to the level of the screws and shutter fasteners.

“Every detail is important, every screw, every fixture,” he explains. “I was lucky that there was still a pair of panelled doors with their original fastenings in the house that I could copy. People thought I was crazy, but if you’re the owner of such a historic house, you have to take responsibility and respect it. Otherwise, live in a modern house. The moment these houses are sold, the new owners destroy everything, and that’s really a pity. As examples, the external shutter fasteners were full of rust, but I found an identical copy manufactured in France. Many internal walls were missing, they were demolished when the place was a synagogue and I accurately reinstated them. All the copied doors have their well thought-out removable top section or ‘wind window’ in order to let the breeze in... from a time when there was no air conditioning. I do feel that the end result justifies all the effort. My home now has its integrity back, it is full of spirit and character.

“This is not my private estate. It’s a work of art. What’s the point of preserving the exterior if the entire interior goes into the garbage bin − if all the doors and tiles are thrown out? You’re left with something inauthentic, a sort of hybrid. I put my heart and soul into the house, but I’m worried. I walk around this area and see houses that are untouched, and I’m happy that they’ve remained authentic, but I’m worried because I know that the moment they’re purchased the entire interior and the heart will go into the garbage. The problem is that slowly but surely the hearts of all these buildings are being rubbed out. Why did I choose to live in Jaffa? I come from a city with a history, and here too I can go outside and still get a feeling of a heritage and a past.”