Red House Red Flag?

Although he has raised an eyebrow or two, businessman Roni Duek believes that most people support his plan to renovate and preserve Tel Aviv’s Lodzia building, and to turn it into luxury apartments

More than 3,000 visitors came to see “the Red House,” the historical premises of the Lodzia factory on Nachmani Street in central Tel Aviv two weeks ago. The red brick building was built in 1924 by Akiva Weiss and was opened to the public, for the first time in 20 years, as part of the citywide event “Houses from Within.” At the peak the line to the Lodzia building stretched an entire block − full of people seeking a last peek into the magnificent industrial space before it is turned into luxury apartments for the wealthy.
Over these 48 hours, the structure was photographed thousands of times from inside and out. The visitors climbed and descended the original steel staircase, which was reinforced for the event. The new landlord, businessman Roni Duek had filled the premises with an exhibition of part of his collection of Land of Israel posters – from adverts to government propaganda. The visitors who touched him the most, he said, were Lodzia’s founders’ descendents.

Tel Aviv’s Lodzia building
Yuval Tebol

“The grandson of one of the founders, Braun, told me he had been trying for decades to enter the place,” says Duek. “Braun planned the factory when he was still in Lodz [in the early 1920s] and brought 50 Jewish families here to work for him. Without knowing, he actually saved them from the Holocaust.”

Duek and his wife, actress Yael Abecassis, purchased the building from the Carasso brothers two years ago for NIS 25 million. The building made headlines this February when Haaretz reported that the couple wanted to turn it into their private home and close it to the public.

The Lodzia building is one of several local structures earmarked for preservation and sold to wealthy buyers in recent years. It is a unique icon in Tel Aviv, because of its architecture and its red bricks, which are unusual here, as well as its importance as a landmark structure in the history of industry in the Land of Israel. It was slated for preservation and the Tel Aviv municipality demanded its former owners, the Carassos, open one-third of it to the public, as part of the brothers’ plan to use it for commercial purposes. More recently, too, the municipality considered making Duek open part of the building to the public, but ultimately acceded to his request.

“I am not the oligarch with the pretty wife that they try to portray,” Duek insists. “This building is basically private. From its first day. It was on the market for a decade and anybody, including the municipality and the government, could have bought it. I am not going to build a monstrous entrepreneurial project here. There is a counter-entrepreneurship attitude here; it is not to maximize profit from the building, but to maximize its potential. That is why I feel completely at ease with my decision to invest here − in terms of business and morals.”

Duek bought the building through the Arava Vineyards company, which he established 15 years ago in partnership with members of Kibbutz Eilot. The company is now an arm for his philanthropic activities and engages in what he calls “unique” real estate. When Duek purchased the Lodzia building, the idea was to turn it into a private home for himself, Abecassis and their six children from various marriages. But now he says the building will likely be divided into different housing units, two big ones and two small ones.

“If you were to suggest I buy a skyscraper in Tel Aviv, I would not be interested even though it, too, has potential for a handsome profit. I am interested in special things, with an element of passion and added value,” he says.

“There is not one entrepreneur in Israel who did not try to lay his hands on Lodzia, including Jews abroad with 100 times more money than me. Why didn’t anyone buy it? An entrepreneur who sees an abandoned building wants to buy it for an agora and a half and not for NIS 25 million. Secondly, the demand for ‘meticulous preservation’ scares many people. One must also remember that the plot had been zoned for industry and was being used illegally since Lodzia moved to Holon. Now it requires a new permit. All these elements deterred buyers, but I see an advantage in this sort of preservation. The first time I came here I was stunned. Yael was familiar with the place because she had filmed there. I think that after the extensive renovation and restoration, it will be the jewel in the crown − an unparalleled building in Tel Aviv architecturally and historically. What can you compare it to, in terms of value? It is unique.”

If the building is so special, why not open part of it to the public? The Tel Aviv municipality demanded the Carasso brothers open the building. Why shouldn’t they demand the same of you?

Duek: “The municipality may have asked the Carassos to do so, but they did not reach any formal agreement. At the time there was talk of using the building for commerce and offices, and in exchange, part of it would be open to the public. I am telling you, if the building were to be used for stores, you would ruin the entire street, especially with a 50-car parking lot. Why should you put stores here? Is there a shortage on ‏(neighboring‏) Yehuda Halevy Street or Rothschild Boulevard? The fact of the matter is that when the plan was discussed, 450 objections were filed. Now, when neighbors ask me what is happening to the building and I say ‘three to four housing units,’ they say ‘excellent,’ because this is not a public nuisance. We checked with various sources and found the best thing would be to use Lodzia for residences. By the way, in any event, nowhere does it say it would be my private home, that I am going to live in a palace or an aristocratic mansion.”

That is what your associates said.

“First of all there was an agreement with the municipality to make the building residential. Then there were suggestions that it would be sold as one unit. Even if I want to live in one unit, all by myself, I owe no one an explanation. I do not think it is a crime to live in this building all alone, but anyway that’s not the idea. This whole thing began with gossip, as a joke. The moment we got the municipality’s consent to turn Lodzia into a residential building, it was clear it would be split into apartments. Of course I’ll buy an apartment in this building, and you can be sure it will be in the best location and an excellent size. After you invest so much in a building, you want to have part of it.”

How did you divide the housing units?

“How many units can you put in a 1,000-square-meter building? In the buildings going up here, on Rothschild Boulevard, the average apartment is 200 to 300 square meters. There is a minimum size for the units so that it’s worth buying and paying for the added value.”

If there were 100- and not 200-square-meter units, it would, perhaps, be a typical Tel Aviv building and not necessarily one aimed at wealthy residents.

“I think that first of all, even under the present circumstances, there is not much profit in this project. We have to act properly. What this building wants is to become a residential structure with the optimal number of units. The optimum is determined based on how it would affect the surroundings. How many people will come and go, what will happen in the adjacent buildings.”

Did the media reports have anything to do with the decision to divide the building into apartments and not to turn it into a private house?

“Not at all. If you knew me, and most certainly Yael, we are the last people to be influenced by media reports. We have no reason to be ashamed of what we are doing or what we own.”

So why did the public criticize you?

“First of all, tell me who ‘the public’ is. The public did not talk. Several journalists did. Some are more serious, and some less so. Some are more gossipy, some are less. This building has been standing here for decade, neglected. I did not see people standing in front of it and demanding it be preserved. I did not see news articles discussing its condition. There is a gossipy matter here, for obvious reasons. It is because of me and especially because of Yael.”

Behind walls

The interest in the so-called Red House goes beyond gossip: The Pagoda House and the Chelouche building, two other notable historical structures that are due to be restored, were bought by rich businessmen and placed behind fortified walls, leading to concerns that yet another iconic building would be closed to the public.

The question is why the Tel Aviv municipality, or some other public organization, did not buy the Lodzia house from the Carasso brothers, and whether the public has a right to “poke” into someone else’s pockets.

“There are hundreds of projects in Tel Aviv that are being sold at $5,000 to $10,000 per square meter. There are people who can live in such projects and those who cannot,” explains Duek. “I think most people in this city are pleased that Lodzia is going to be renovated and preserved as it should be, and that it will cease being an environmental hazard.

“I have a basic responsibility toward the public to preserve the building in the best possible way. After all, 90 percent of my time is devoted to public activity. I do not have to apologize to anyone about my conduct. I work out of love.”

Moreover, Duek adds, “if I were to open a museum, I would do so in Beit Shean or Sderot. I did not intend, nor do I now, to turn even part of Lodzia into a museum or a gallery. The entrepreneurs who competed for this building did not compete over a philanthropic initiative. It was business and offices, or a residence. I think that ultimately my company’s investment was the most proper, in terms of the public and the municipality, too. What is the alternative? Not to buy this building? How can the public take over something that never belonged to it? The Carasso family dumped tires here for 50 years. Is that better?”

Duek promises that the building will be opened to the public during events such as Houses from Within. “But that is a minor point,” he says. “The important thing is that we are going to refurbish the building and restore its impressive facade, just as it was in the 1920s.”