Over Their Heads

A historic former hospital in Ramat Gan was saved from destruction thanks to residents’ protests − but that doesn’t mean a 42-story tower can’t be built above it.

For 70 years, the Ramat Marpeh Hospital operated out of a building perched on a high hill in Ramat Gan’s Geffen neighborhood. In 1935, Dr. Leo Auerbach, a gynecologist from Berlin who arrived in Mandatory Palestine after the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany, dedicated the building as a birthing center. The hospital he built on the grounds of the historic Goldberg citrus groves, on land far from the town, was surrounded by greenery and suffused with fresh air.

The building was lauded in contemporary magazines and municipal publications as one of the most important and luxurious in town. The birthing center was the first of its kind in Israel, at a time when births took place at home in ad-hoc delivery rooms. More than 10,000 infants were born at Ramat Marpeh, and women came from nearby and not-so-nearby cities − Petah Tikva, Herzliya, even Hadera − to give birth there.

In the hospital’s early days, “the few buildings scattered in the surrounding area were connected by dirt paths,” says Shmuel Auerbach, son of the hospital’s founder. Lacking public infrastructure, the hospital’s electricity and heating were supplied by a private generator. Over the years, the number of births at the hospital grew and the distance between the hospital and the city shrank. Today, the building is surrounded by apartment buildings, and only its southern edge peeks out above the tree line.

The Ramat Marpeh Hospital has a tumultuous history. In April 1936 the Arab Revolt broke out and the hospital, located across from the Arab village of Sheikh Munis, was used as a guard post by the Haganah pre-independence Jewish army. At that time, traveling by road was dangerous and most pregnant women stopped coming from afar. Because of financial difficulties, Dr. Auerbach’s family moved into the building until calm was restored.

The hospital also clandestinely treated wounded members of the Irgun and Lehi underground militias, whose activities earned Ramat Gan the dubious epithet “the incubator of terrorism.” In 1946, Auerbach sold the building to a group of physicians who operated the delivery rooms while he continued to work there as a regular staff member. For many years, the building served as a general hospital. Starting in the 1980s it housed a branch of the Maccabi health maintenance organization.

Residents’ outcry

The hospital was abandoned about eight years ago, and the investments and holding company Africa-Israel Investments acquired the lot. In April 2007, neighborhood residents were surprised to find that bulldozers had started to tear the building down to make way for a 42-story apartment tower. They quickly banded together and with the help of the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites petitioned the Tel Aviv District Court, which halted the project. At the same time, the Ramat Gan municipality arrived at an agreement with the society whereby the building would be included on its list of preserved structures.

At the beginning of this week, another discussion was held with the local planning council over the future of the site. The current plan proposes to preserve the historic building and erect the residential tower above it. The plan would enclose the east part of the building within the tower’s lobby. Following the discussion, the municipality forwarded the matter to the district planning council, with the recommendation to allow the apartment building to be erected as planned while requiring the contractor to preserve the hospital structure and reinforce the nearby Givolim elementary school against earthquakes.

Still, residents are concerned not only about the physical preservation of the existing structure but also about losing a green lung in the heart of the city. A local survey taken by the Israel Union for Environmental Defense at the request of residents reveals a serious lack of open public spaces. These points, however, were not discussed by the municipality.
A name to be reckoned with

The hospital is a modest, two-story, concrete building. Its broad facade faces Jabotinsky Road and features an impressive patio running the full length of the building, which is composed primarily of two shapes: a rectangular body and a half-moon-shaped extension. During its decades of operation, the hospital’s ground floor featured a kitchen, a dining hall, rooms for the medical staff and a room for the doctor’s private chauffeur. The second floor housed the nursery, operating rooms and a room used for ritual circumcisions, as well as the new mothers’ recovery rooms, which were curved because of the building’s design and shared a veranda.

The hospital’s architect, Harry Luria, was known as one of the most senior designers of public buildings in Israel. Born in Latvia at the end of the 19th century, Luria made a name for himself as an architect in Italy and immigrated to Israel in 1933. He quickly became a name to be reckoned with on the local scene: That same year he won a contest to built the Metzudat Ze’ev building in Tel Aviv, which served as the headquarters for the Revisionist Zionist movement in the 1930s. Over the years, Luria designed the Tiberias hot springs bathhouses, and together with architect Arieh Sharon he also planned Tel Aviv’s Migdalor cinema ‏(which in the 1980s made way for an office tower bearing the same name‏).

Incidentally, the 1937 Dworkin orphanage, also part of Luria’s portfolio and located near the birthing center, is also now in danger: IT could be razed, after the Ramat Gan municipality approved a plan to build two apartment buildings on the land.

The structure, which was designed to very high standards, is still in good shape from an engineering perspective, except for the partial destruction caused five years ago, which left rubble on the site that has yet to be removed. Since the courts halted the project, the site has been fenced off and the lot cannot be accessed, because of which the abandoned building has suffered neglect and is filled with trash. Because the public has not been included in the process, residents interested in having a say over the future of the building find themselves entangled in expensive and frustrating bureaucratic processes as opponents to the project. These processes also damage the contractor who owns the property but is barred from doing anything with it.

Make it a museum

As part of alternative plans currently being formulated by neighbors, the Society for Preservation of Israeli Heritage Sites, and one of the members of the city’s preservation committee, it was suggested that the building could serve as a museum about the underground struggle against the British Mandate. The museum would lead tours, host lectures and run seminars on the city’s history, and a garden would be planted for use by local residents. Other suggestions include turning the building into a library, housing, or a well-baby clinic; the latter idea would maintain the building’s original designation.

Amos Somekh, a neighborhood resident, claims that none of the residents’ proposals were discussed at this week’s municipality meeting. “The essential question is: Is the municipality aware of the full details of the plans and does it care about our needs?,” he says. “This week, council members opted not to discuss the nature of the building ... which could have given them a public response to [the possibility of] a neighborhood facing the influx of thousands of residential units, preferring instead to support the contractor’s plans.”

At a time when private contracting controls construction, it would seem necessary to examine whether building preservation doesn’t sometimes serve as an excuse for building high-rises and provide a way to brand new towers as exclusive. The case of the birthing center could offer the Ramat Gan municipality an opportunity to work with residents to find creative ways to increase density in the growing city, on the one hand, and to preserve the heritage that gives the neighborhood its unique flavor, on the other.

The municipality responded by saying: “The Ramat Gan municipality is one of the only municipalities in the country that, of its own volition, has taken a comprehensive preservation survey of the city. The survey identified 600 sites for discussion by the preservation committee, which meets regularly and spends every meeting discussing a group of buildings. In a hasty and apparently illegal move, the district council recently decided to assume the authority of Ramat Gan’s elected officials and discuss requests regarding sites mentioned in the survey, thereby voiding the meetings of the preservation committee of any meaningful content.”