Should the General Staff HQ From War of Independence Be Saved?

Bejerano House, the villa in Ramat Gan that housed the General Staff during the War of Independence, is being threatened by developers. Will the city stop them?

At first glance, the two-story house at the end of a dead-end street in Ramat Gan's Gan Avraham neighborhood gives the impression that time has stopped. A lengthy climb is needed to reach the top of the sloping neighborhood of single-family homes, where Bejerano House stands, covered in greenery. From it, a paved path meanders to a terraced garden, at the bottom which several casuarina trees are planted.

The pastoral-looking building conceals within it a considerable chunk of history. Built in the 1940s as the home of a wealthy family of industrialists, it was commandeered into the country's service just a few years later. It grew neglected in the 1990s, when its owners moved to the United States, but then it was adopted by preservation groups - who, three years later, had to deal with new tenants who wanted to demolish parts of it.

Today, the house's future is shrouded in the mists: It constitutes a bone of contention between the municipality, the developers, the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites and the regional planning committee.

The house was designed in 1944 by architect Benjamin Tchlenov for the Bejerano family, who were part owners of the Assis company and manufactured Bejerano cigarettes. At that time, homes were built in this wealthy neighborhood for industrialists, bankers and members of the free professions.

"This neighborhood was like the Savyon of today," recalled designer Talma Levin, the architect's daughter. She said that Ramat Gan was so remote from Tel Aviv that inhabitants of the latter would rent summer homes there, thanks to its clean air and the wonderful views in all directions.

The house was built in a Romantic style, in accordance with its owners' conservatism. It looked like a suburban fantasy, complete with tiled roof, arched openings and stylized ironwork. Covering an area of 270 square meters, the house contained a study, a living room, bathrooms and six bedrooms, all of them spacious and high-ceilinged.

Preservation architect Noa Sheck, who prepared a documentation file for the house, described the style and the unusual dimensions as follows: "Private residential construction in the 1940s and 1950s managed temporarily to free itself from the International style that was typical and right for building in the 1930s. This was a period that has not won recognition and appreciation as part of Israel's architectural heritage, which effectively fluctuates between the International style and the Brutalist style that characterized the early years of the state."

Emergency order

All the buildings Tchlenov (1900-1991 ) planned ranged from pure Modernism to restrained Romanticism, in accordance with the changing spirit of the times and the client's personality. After completing his studies at the Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts in Paris, the architect worked for two years at the firm of the greatest of the Modernist architects, Le Corbusier.

Back in Palestine, he opened an architectural office with his wife Yehudit, whom he met when they were both working for architect Zeev Rechter to design Angel House. Tchlenov designed Ohalo on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the music building at Ein Gev, master plans, villas and residential buildings.

For most of his career he worked together with his wife, an interior architect who, in addition to her independent career, designed the interiors of the buildings he planned. Their daughter, Levin, said that Yehudit designed the furniture for the Steimatzky family, owners of the book store chain, as well as the furniture in Bejerano House, which has been preserved in good condition to this day.

Great emphasis was placed on the house's landscape design, which was delegated to landscape architect Moshe Kavshani, who also planned and executed Mayor Avraham Krinitzi's vision of a green Ramat Gan.

"Kavshani formulated a harmonious and sustainable language based on the topography, available raw materials, the local work force, foliage suited to the climate, light, shade and the integration of patches of color and water," wrote Sheck. "All these elements came together into a whole in the splendid garden he planned around Bejerano House."

From the terraced garden to the ornamental pool, this was a prosperous period for Yosef and Sofia Bejerano, who raised their two children in the villa. But history temporarily interrupted their tranquil life in the beautiful setting: The day after Israel declared independence, Arab armies sprung into action, and the Egyptian air force attacked Tel Aviv, where the Israel Defense Forces' General Staff was working from the Red House on Hayarkon Street.

In light of the immediate threat to the General Staff, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion sought urgent help from Krinitzi, a close friend from the early days of the Haganah (a prestate Jewish paramilitary organization ). Ben-Gurion asked him to allocate some 50 apartments in Ramat Gan to be fitted up as offices and residences for the high command of the IDF.

The quiet neighborhood on Abraham Hill was chosen as the preferred site, because its high altitude and the thick greenery surrounding it enabled it to serve as a secure observation point over the coastal plain. It was also close enough to Tel Aviv but far enough from Arab villages, and the widely spaced buildings meant that damage would be slight if it were attacked.

Residents of the adjacent streets - Sharett, Haparsa and Zar - were handed emergency expropriation orders informing them that they would be able to return to their homes in just a few weeks. In reality, most of the houses were commandeered until the end of the war, and the authorities broke their promise to provide the neighborhood's wealthy inhabitants with alternative housing.

Bejerano House, the most luxurious home in the neighborhood, was chosen for the offices of the senior officers of the General Staff, most of which was located in the nearby school building. Yosef Bejerano's wood-paneled study became Ben-Gurion's own office; the head of the Haganah had his headquarters in the bedroom wing; and the treasurer and the strategic advisor had their offices on the ground floor.

The house suffered an aerial bombardment that damaged the front door frame about a month after the army moved in. Only after construction of the Ganim Base (the Ramat Gan Adjutancy ) was completed in May of 1949 was the General Staff moved there. The family moved back in and remained in the house until it was sold in the 1960s.

Piles of boards and plaster

For the past two decades, the property has been owned by people who lived in the United States, and the house stood empty apart from routine maintenance and annual visits by the family. It hit the headlines again in 2006, when it was reported that businessman Shmuel Flatto-Sharon had taken an interest in acquiring the property.

The city's master plan allowed for the building to be demolished and replaced with two multistory buildings. Flatto-Sharon drew fire when he announced his intention to do so, and was finally stopped thanks to intervention by Ramat Gan Mayor Zvi Bar and the city's architect, Sergio Lerman, who appreciated the property's historical, architectural and landscape value. It was added to the municipal preservation list that very year, and the deal was scuttled.

But this did not put an end to the threats to the building. Three years ago, the lot was sold to a new developer, who is also interested in expanding construction on it.

"The Ramat Gan municipality has recognized the building's great value and has declared it a building earmarked for preservation and public use," said the city's municipal engineer, Haim Cohen, explaining the complexity of the issue. "But this is privately owned land, and the purchaser has building rights he wants and is entitled to use.

"For years now, the municipality has been exploring a number of alternatives with the developers, who initially proposed splitting the building into two parts and preserving only Ben-Gurion's study," he continued. "This proposal, like a proposal for construction in the historical garden behind the building, has not been accepted by the municipality, which is continuing to seek other sites to which to transfer the owner's rights."

As time passed, the spacious Bejerano House was dwarfed by the city of Ramat Gan that sprouted beneath it. Predictably, a decision has been delayed, and developers and residents can expect several more years of going back and forth between one agency and the next.

In the house's courtyard stand piles of boards and sacks of plaster, a memento of construction attempts that were blocked at the last minute. Most of the trees in the garden have been cut down without a permit, and in the meantime, the once-flourishing garden has been taken over by weeds.

Cohen said he thinks the municipality is now close to a solution that would satisfy the developers, in the form of allowing construction adjacent to the villa. But this proposal is vehemently opposed by the neighbors, who point out that the new building is liable to rise to the height of seven stories, which would clearly damage the neighborhood's character.

"It isn't that it's impermissible to build tall buildings in Ramat Gan," explained Tamar Tuchler, director for the Central District at the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites. "It's simply not reasonable to do this everywhere. In the absence of any overall thought as to what in the city is worthy of preservation, we are constantly encountering localized solutions. There is a need to adopt broader thinking, so that the city, which has been built to a high standard, will continue to serve its inhabitants during the coming decades."