When Walls Tell All

Two years of preservation, restoration and rehabilitative work on the grand building on the corner of Rothschild and Allenby in Tel Aviv have drawn to a close. A first peek inside.

The group that gathered on a rainy Friday afternoon a few weeks ago on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv seemed very excited. Under the guidance of Shay Farkash, an expert in preservation of stencils painted on walls, they were able for the first time to enter the gates of the impressive historic building at the corner of Allenby Street and Rothschild.

After ascending the stairs, the members of the group arrived at the lovely colonnaded balcony that overlooks the boulevard. They looked at the floor paintings and wall art, and from there ascended to the roof, until they were standing before the crowning glory of the building: a wooden dome that looks out over Allenby.

Rothschild - Daniel Tchetchik - December 9, 2011
Daniel Tchetchik

The members of the group are all relatives of Menachem Mendel Kroll, a painter, artist and wall decorator, who came to Israel from Poland at the beginning of the 20th century and left his mark on many of the homes in the then-new city, including this building. The work of preserving, restoring and rehabilitating the structure, which took two years, is now coming to a close, and results are being revealed here for the first time.

When the building first opened in 1921, it was the first luxury hotel in Tel Aviv (called at different times the Ben Nahum Hotel and the Ginosar Pension ). It was the first public building designed by architect Yehuda Magidovich, Tel Aviv's first municipal engineer.

restored building - Daniel Tchetchik - 10122011
Daniel Tchetchik

An advertisement published in the newspaper Doar Hayom on August 1, 1922 (in Hebrew that sounds archaic and amusing to today's reader ) said that on the site there was a "restaurant, hotel and pension set up with European taste, with the latest appliances, electric lighting, telephone, etc." The ad explained that, "the honored guests will find: lovely rooms, clean air, good fresh food, all types of drinks, cleanliness, punctual service and all the hygienic requirements as well as convenient prices. An attractive hall for family celebrations, convention banquets, and so on." The hotel also offered home delivery. "We accept orders for meals to be delivered to the home of the customer," said the ad.

A year later, on September 7, 1923, another ad appeared in the newspaper: "The Ginosar Pension, which is known for its spacious rooms and good service, is increasing the number of rooms beginning this coming year and will therefore be able to lower the price without detracting from the convenience that its guests have enjoyed until now."

restored building - Daniel Tchetchik - 10122011
Daniel Tchetchik

At the entrance to the hotel was a statue of a rabbi and his students surrounded by animals. The rabbis of the first Jewish city protested what they described as a Greek-inspired statue, and imposed a boycott on the hotel. The statue was removed. The frustrated sculptor, Y.D. Gordon, shattered his creation and left Israel in anger.

A protest also erupted because contractor Shmuel Wilson, known as "the American," employed Arab workers to transfer the gravel from the beach to the construction site. Demonstrators in the city called for "Hebrew labor."

Next to the hotel, the wallet of Zina Dizengoff, the wife of Meir Dizengoff, the first mayor, was stolen. Instead of chasing the thief, she told her husband: "Now I know that Tel Aviv has become a city" - paraphrasing the words of national poet Haim Nahman Bialik, that "we will be a normal country only after we have the first Hebrew thief and the first Hebrew prostitute."

Today, not far away, on Hamelekh Shlomo Street, is the office of architect Nitza Metzger Szmuk, who oversaw the project of preserving the historic building. Metzger Szmuk created the building-preservation team of the Tel Aviv municipality and is now training the next generation of architects specializing in preservation at the TechnionIsrael Institute of Technology in Haifa.

She opens the file relating to the history of this structure, covering the 90 years that have passed since its glory days in the 1920s, up to the sad condition in which she found it in 2005, when she began the preservation work.

"The building absorbed change after change over the years, to the point where anything of value in it was erased," she explains. "When we began the work it was simply ugly, without any personality; it didn't know what it wanted to be. We found a stairwell in horrific condition - I have no other word to describe it. The windows were completely warped. The arches weren't arches."

One of the few who were allowed to see the building after it was restored was Dr. Yoav Hetzrony, who is married to the granddaughter of Magidovich.

"The restoration of the building is simply brilliant," Hetzrony says. "This wonderful job brings to center stage the history of Tel Aviv as it really took place."

There is no street or square in the city named after Magidovich himself: His close friends - Dizengoff, Bialik and Menachem Ussishkin - have been properly memorialized in streets, squares and houses named after them in Tel Aviv. But the architect who designed about 500 buildings in the city, including famous ones such as the Great Synagogue, the Esther Cinema and the Russian Embassy, remains virtually anonymous.

Where the horse stopped

Yehudah Magidovich was born in Uman, in Ukraine, many years before Rabbi Nahman of Uman became a household name in Israel. In 1919 he arrived in Israel on the Ruslan, the first ship to sail from the Russian Empire to Palestine after World War I. There were 620 passengers on board. A partial list includes the first editor of Haaretz, Moshe Glickson, architect Zeev Rechter, artists Joseph Zaritsky and Pinchas Litvinovsky, the intellectual and cultural figure Baruch Agadati and the poet Rachel.

Magidovich's office was in the first city hall building, in the old water tower on Rothschild Boulevard. He used to ride to work on a horse. His biography relates that Dizengoff used to joke that he could tell which houses Magidovich had designed by the places where his horse was: It had been trained to wait at the entrance while its owner supervised the construction work.

The hotel was the first public building designed by Magidovich. It was commissioned by Solomon Pechter, a wealthy former shoe salesman from Australia, who immigrated to Palestine at the end of World War I. During the construction Pechter was forced to leave the country following the death of his daughter, who had gone abroad for treatment. When he was on the way back with her coffin, he suffered from a heart attack and died at sea; both were buried in Tel Aviv. Due to their deaths there was no festive dedication ceremony for the hotel.

The three-story structure originally included rooms for entertaining, relaxation and reading, an events hall, a dining room and a balcony. In 1936 one of the branches of the famous Cafe Atara moved into the ground floor, and became a meeting place for intellectuals and artists.

In the 1950s the hotel was closed, and other businesses moved in, including the veteran Aviv taxi stand, Oren Hakatan restaurant and the Orient Tours travel agency. In recent years there was also a pub and a yoga studio there.

A few years ago the municipality granted the owners of the building a permit to build a huge high-rise with 29 stories and 72 apartments on the adjacent lot, in exchange for underwriting the expense of restoring the hotel. It has not yet been decided which businesses will be located in the restored building.

When architect Metzger Szmuk took on the project, there was a question as to whether to peel off all the layers the building had accumulated over the years and restore the original one. "Some people," she recalls, "thought the latter layers are also part of the city's history and should be preserved, but I thought, from the very beginning, that they were of no value - that they had only erased and destroyed the original. I never for a moment thought that we could avoid going back to the original in this project."

The building was constructed in 1921, when Allenby Street, today one of the busiest in the city, had just been paved. "Suddenly some lunatic comes and puts up this building in the middle of nowhere, as a Zionist act, and invests his money in good faith. You can feel it to this day. The building 'broadcasts' this," Metzger Szmuk explains, adding: "You have to respect the original. The city looked totally different at the time. This part of history has been erased, and it should be brought back. It's of great importance and value, and is part of the fabric of historical events that took place here."

Not long afterward the construction plans were lost, and on the orders of the city engineer in the 1930s, the original characteristics of this and other buildings of this type were erased, to make them more modern. Additions and changes led over the years to removal of arches, efforts to conceal the columns, erasure of the paintings, covering of floor tiles, and inattention to the wooden dome, which began to rot.

"I brought in workers with golden hands, who worked with a small hammer and chisel," says Metzger Szmuk. "My instructions were clear: Work very slowly, and the moment you discover anything stop everything and call me." The long-awaited moment arrived one Friday morning, slightly over two years ago. "Just like an archaeological discovery, the concrete fell away and revealed whole columns."

Meanwhile, to grasp a more precise picture of the original appearance of the building, those involved in restoring it burrowed in public and private archives, searching for old pictures of Tel Aviv in the 1920s. In one they saw how the original door of the building looked. In another, taken by an electric company employee who documented the installation of electricity poles in the street, they could make out the columns, the windows and the stairwell. Another photo revealed the statue at the entrance. And there was also a picture showing the paintings inside the dome.

At this point the expert on wall stencils, Shay Farkash, entered the picture. "Up until about a decade ago there was not a single building in the Tel Aviv area where the stencils were restored," he says in an improvised lecture inside the restored dome. "These paintings simply disappeared because nobody understood anything about them."

Country-wide move

Tel Aviv is the city with the largest amount of such wall art relative to the number of buildings and residents. "Thousands of buildings contained these stencils," says Farkash. "They also were found in stores, schools, offices, cafes and even synagogues."

One of the most recent projects in which he was involved was in David Ben-Gurion's first apartment, on Pinsker Street, where other wall art by Menachem Mendel Kroll was discovered. Farkash estimates that there remains much to be uncovered in this realm. "To date we have restored only 1 percent of the stencils painted in the city," he says.

His team discovered the stencils in the hotel rooms by working carefully, so as to expose the originals and be able to use them as the basis for their preservation work. Two artists restored some of the old stencils, but many others discovered in the course of the work were not restored, because they were not specifically mentioned in the municipality's agreement with the owners of the building. The materials the restorers used include egg colors, bone glue and pigments, very thin brushes and other materials and tools imported from abroad.

Restoration of this grand building is part of a country-wide move toward, and heightened awareness of, preservation and a more active role in such efforts by the relevant authorities. Most prominent is the activity of the Council for the Restoration and Preservation of Historic Sites, which has been leading the revolution in the field in recent years - by promoting legislation, waging public battles to raise awareness, and supervising projects.

Last month the council granted the title of "heritage site" to a building near the one on Rothschild, which also recently underwent a successful preservation process under the sponsorship of owners of a huge high-rise building next door. Schiff House, one of the first houses of Tel Aviv, stands at the junction of Herzl and Lilienblum streets. During the 102 years that have passed since its construction, it has housed a bank, a hotel, a barber shop, a sausage store and legal offices.

In recent years the Bank Discount tower was built next to it - 30 stories above ground and seven below. In this case too, the building permit for the new tower was linked to a commitment to restore the old building at its foot, which was paid for by Bank Discount. The result is considered a prime example of preservation. The exterior and interior architectural lines were restored, and the wall decorations, flooring and other elements were exposed and repaired. At present the structure houses the Museum of Banking and Tel Aviv Nostalgia, which is open to the public free of charge.

"There's tremendous progress in Israel in understanding the value of preservation," says Omri Shalmon, director of the Council for the Restoration and Preservation of Historic Sites. "After they understood the cultural value of preserving buildings, more and more people and institutions understand that it is also of tremendous economic value. Preservation brings tourism and increases the value of a building."

Tamar Tuchler, who represents the council in Tel Aviv, adds that, "At first people would throw us out when we fought for preserving buildings in the city. Today everyone talks about the jewel that was preserved."