Local celebrities and wealthy businessmen gathered last month in a ruined building on Yefet Street in Jaffa. They wanted to see, to be seen and to mingle in the place where 140 years earlier a French businessman and two priests passed through the lot, which at the time was the site of a ruined English fortress. These earlier visitors wanted to see the Levant and were searching for spiritual fulfillment – but they caught malaria, which cost the priests their lives.
What the local aristocracy of 2014 was celebrating was the launching of the W Tel Aviv-Jaffa hotel, which is scheduled to open already next year, on the lot on which in 1885 a French businessman from the Lyon area, Francois Guinet, built a hospice several years after his recovery from malaria. If the story of the construction and maintenance of the building is a prime example of human generosity and compassion – the present preservation and expansion are motivated entirely by market forces, and would not have been possible without them.
What will make the hotel unique is the old building: Its story has been developing since that fateful visit in 1875, which was initiated by Guinet, who was also the only one who survived it. Although in the Middle East he encountered swamps and diseases, he was also fascinated by the Oriental people and the sights. When he fell ill, he and his friends were cared for by the nuns from the French Order of Saint Joseph, and later, when he visited Jaffa, Guinet promised to build a hostel and a hospital for them, since until then patients were housed and treated in their private homes.
The architects, Ribellet and Grebez, also from Lyon, planned a spacious building, which was one of the first new buildings to be constructed outside the walls of the Old City. With two stories full of arches and adornments, each story six meters high, the new hospice presented a façade that was both monumental and restrained, facing Yefet Street. It was built with three wings that were arranged in a U shape, surrounding a courtyard in the back that was used to grow fruits and vegetables for the patients’ meals.
The design of the new construction follows the tastes of W’s target audience – well-to-do tourists who are aware of contemporary design. Accordingly, the planning team includes British architects John Pawson – who is experienced in designing galleries and residential buildings, as well as minimalist luxury villas, environmental sculptures and boutique shops, including the Calvin Klein flagship stores. The second half of the team is Israeli architect Ramy Gill, with architect Anna Shipman in charge of preservation.
A hospitable refuge
The French Hospital was built entirely with French building methods, and special artisans were brought in at the time for that purpose – glaziers, carpenters, builders, experts in stone, metal and glass. They filled the building with decorative elements, including Roman columns for which Corinthian cornices were carved, stone statuettes, stained glass windows between thin iron wires, and metal fixtures in the shape of flowers, leaves and braided plants.
In the southern part of the structure and left of the entrance a small church was built. Nothing on the outside reveals its existence, with the exception of its window decorations. According to Gill, it was inspired by familiar models from the south of France. Even the laborers and the building materials themselves were imported mainly from France, some materials were manufactured there and arrived in Israel ready for installation. The French hospital was called “Saint Louis” – after King Louis IX, who headed the Crusades that took place in Palestine in the 13th century.
The cornerstone was laid in 1879 by the patriarch of the Catholic Church in Jerusalem. When it was opened six years later, Guinet declared that the hospital, which would be run by the sisters, would be open to everyone – regardless of gender, religion and nationality, and that treatment would be provided free of charge. The building contained 40 beds, a church, a hospital, a hostel for the needy, for widows and orphans, and also served as a wayside inn for Crusaders.
After Guinet’s death in the late 19th century, he bequeathed the asset to the nuns. His sons and heirs, who continued to donate to the hospital after his death, gave up their remaining rights to the place for the sake of the order.
During the 1920s and 1930s the hospital was enlarged, and in its final incarnation contained 120 beds. Although the first expansion imitated the style of the main building, the 1936 addition, which was designed by architect Israel Rapaport, was a three-story building in the International style. During the 1950s there were additional renovations, but already then it was difficult to maintain the hospital. Hospitalization remained free of charge, but the hospital had no donors, and the cost of maintenance in the institution – which became more of a hospital and less of a hostel – was significantly higher than its income.
In addition, the building was in need of expensive innovations such as a place for ambulances, central heating, and modern access for visitors. In the end the hospital was closed in 1969, and over the next 25 years it was leased to the government and served as a mental health clinic – until it was sold in the late 1990s to a group of entrepreneurs. From that time, and during the course of work on the city plan, it was neglected and disintegrated.
A $60-million penthouse
Eight years ago it was purchased from the previous entrepreneurs by the American real estate investment firm RFR Holdings, which brought the international W Hotels chain into the project. When construction is completed, at a cost of $50 million, it will include 127 rooms and 38 luxury apartments in a separate residential wing. Adjacent to the hospice there will be a new six-story building covered with layers of metal. As part of the present restoration, all the additions to the original French hospital have been destroyed.
The present incarnation of the site has been extremely slow to take shape — both because of bureaucracy and due to archaeological discoveries revealed by Antiquities Authority excavations in 2009. One was the discovery of vestiges of the southern bastion of the Old City and the foundation of the stone wall built there in the 13th century. As during the original construction, the present restoration includes the importing of new artisans: an iron preserver who studied the trade of preserving window frames in England, a preserver from Belgium who is an expert in stained glass windows, an expert stonemason from Germany, a stonemason from Carrera, a paint expert from Belgium and a team from Venice to identify materials.
There are 10 women working on restoration at the site: Most are concentrated in the church, using a tiny scalpel-like tool with which they scrape off the layers of paint, in preparation for its next incarnation as a lobby. “Technically speaking, this building is European rather than local. Almost everything here is imported: The tiles have stamps from Marseille, and the metal fixtures have the stamp of a Paris workshop,” says Yotam Carmel, a partner in the Arco Planning, Preservation and Restoration firm.
Shahar Perry, the CEO of RFR, says that the company identified a need for hotels in the city, particularly in the renewed area (which is also becoming Jewish and bourgeois) of the triangle created by the Jaffa Port, the Clock Square and the Jaffa flea market. There’s a reason why nearby, on the Clock Square, another luxury hotel is now being built — belonging to the Orchidea chain, which will include 100 rooms and luxury suites.
“This place is undergoing a transformation from sleepy and quiet Jaffa to something far more bustling and vibrant,” says Perry. “A younger and more dynamic population has moved here.” Part of that population is even capable of purchasing a penthouse costing 60 million shekels ($17.6 million) like those being built in the residential wing of the hotel.