New boutique hotels bring renewal to Jaffa

Setai Hotel Photo: Website
Setai Hotel Photo: Website

The hotels, set to open in the next few months, are located in 19th century buildings marked for preservation.

Two particularly luxurious hotels are scheduled to open in the coming months at the northwestern entrance to Jaffa near the clock tower. The hotels signal the change taking place in the area. Once dominated by criminals, police, vans transporting prisoners, mental patients, and nuns, it is cleaned up, presentable, and becoming luxurious. The Kishle on the clock tower square is now called Setai Hotel. It is a boutique hotel in a modern oriental style. The St. Louis French Hospital on upper Yefet Street has become an especially exclusive site with both hotel rooms and apartments in 21st century style.

On the face of it, we should be glad that old buildings, which were neglected for many years, are now being renovated to the highest standard and are being rezoned. It turns out, however, that quite a few people are worried that the historical character is being changed and is losing its special character.

Power, splendor, and deterrence

The Kishle building, which was constructed in the late 19th century, was originally a fortress at the northeastern corner of the Jaffa Old City walls. The building was part of a complex that also included the new home of the Saray (Ottoman ruler) and a plaza with a clock tower. At a time when Jaffa Port was the main entry gate to the Land of Israel, these buildings symbolized power, splendor, and deterrence. Following Israel's War of Independence, the building was given to the Israel Police, which left it in 2005 when a new Tel Aviv district headquarters was built on Salame Street.

The building was purchased from the Israel Land Authority by the Nakash brothers, former Israelis who made a fortune in the 1970s from the Jordache brand of jeans, and who now own Arkia Airlines Ltd. and the Arcadia hotel chain. The architects for the new building are the Feigin firm, which has specialized in hotel design for many years. The firm designed the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv and the Beresheet Hotel in Mitzpe Ramon.

The historical Kishle structure was designed as a closed compound surrounded by a wall. It contained three main buildings with a mixture of confinement and isolation cells, administration and service rooms, yards, and later additions. Architect Yoel Feigin says that the valid urban building plan allowed him to designed the hotel entrance on the historical wall around the Kishle compound, but he chose not to do this: "We made a different design, and instead of building on the historical wall, we decided to respect it. We did all the construction on buildings that were distant from the wall. In compensation, we made the buildings two floors higher.

"We had many difficulties from all sorts of entities that objected to the design, such as the Council for the Preservation of Heritage Sites in Israel and people from the mosque, but the municipal engineer was on our side. You can see that the silhouette, which is broken, matches the construction of the Old City of Jaffa."

The architects demolished the later buildings, reconstructed the existing building, dug basements, and added three floors. The hotel has 110 rooms, 10 suites, a presidential suite, a spa, a pool overlooking the sea, restaurants, and event halls. The architects' design approach was to preserve the spirit of Jaffa, and the additional floors were therefore also covered with stone, and the window proportions are reminiscent of those in the old building. The interior design of public spaces is a type of modern Arab palace fantasy, including heavy furniture and a lot of dark wood, stone, and mashrabiyas.

The preservation architect for the Kishle structure is Eyal Ziv, who is also responsible for designed the preservation of the remains of the Saray buildings, the Alhambra Theater, and others. Ziv says that Joseph Nakash bought the Kishle with "a very strong emotional incentive": "At age 16, he immigrated from Iraq, and went to visit his sister, who was living in Jaffa. He made contact with Arabs, and they stole horses together. His friends got away, but he was caught, and spent 72 hours in jail in Jaffa. When the Kishle compound was put up for sale in an auction, he said he wanted it no matter what."

According to Ziv, the design for reconstructing the Kishle structure refers to the urban building plan designed by Architect Gershon Zippor in 1995, which was aimed at providing a solution for Jaffa's development outside the wall in the modern period.

"Globes": Don't you think that a luxury hotel building is alien to this part of Jaffa?

Ziv: "If you look at it historically, Jaffa was a port of immigration, the Ben Gurion Airport of the time. There were dozens of hotels and hostels here. There are inns and the Jerusalem Hotel in the American-German Colony. Following WWI, WWII, and the War of Independence, there was total deterioration. The city faded into its ruins, and was no longer a focus of attraction. The urban fabric was slaughtered. What's happening now is that the city is going to become a tourist site, with the cultural and social values being preserved. If it becomes a city for rich people, it will collapse. Hotels have important value for creating a cultural affinity. The hotel's 150 rooms are keeping tourists in the city. It provides economic potential. Today, they look around and go away."

When the plan was promoted, there were a great many objections. The Council for the Preservation of Heritage Sites, the Islamic Council, and Tel Aviv-Jaffa City Council member Ahmad Masharawi asserted at the time that the additional floors spoil the historical skyline of Jaffa and conceal the mosque. What kind of preservation are you proposing?

"I'm in favor of adding construction rights, and I think that you have to add construction rights to all the buildings around the clock tower, so that they reach the height of the buildings in the Greek market. First of all, that's what the historical intention was, and you can see this from the existing buildings, in which there is preparation for additional floors and old diagrams, which show some of the buildings before they were demolished.

"I think that the preservation people who were opposed at the time have rerouted their thinking, and now realize that the right method of preservation is not a monument, because otherwise, it gets put into formaldehyde. If preservation means making it an integral part of the present and future, it has to have the re-use options that the future wants. In this case, the economic needs of the developer are a work material. If the values are preserved and the developer makes a profit, the building will get another lease on life."

The French Hospital in Jaffa was initiated by a French tourist named Francis Guinet, who toured the area in 1875, caught a fever, and was treated by nurses from the order of St. Joseph. In appreciation for the dedicated treatment that he received, he contributed a large sum of money to the nuns for construction of a hospital and hostel for pilgrims. The building, one of the first built outside the Jaffa Old City walls, was designed and built by French architects and craftsmen in a style that combined neo-classical European architecture with elements of the Middle Ages.

The hospital was closed for lack of money in 1969. The building was leased to the state and used as an ambulatory institution for the mentally ill. In 1997, it was sold to developer Simon Elias, who sold it to a Manhattan based, privately controlled real estate investment, development and management company founded in 1991 by Aby Rosen and Michael Fuchs.

The local architect of the building is Ramy Gill. Developer Aby Rosen, known as a millionaire, stylist, and admirer of brands, selected UK and international architect John Pawson, known to all design enthusiasts for his minimalist and restrained style, to work with Gil. Pawson works all over the world, designing homes mostly for the wealthy, but also prestige stores, yachts, and boutique hotels. He recently designed the design museum in Kensington, London, together with the OMA firm.

Gil says that he has being designing projects for 23 years. He was hired by Simon Elias at the time to design the rezoning from vacation apartments to hotel and residences. "We went to the municipality and made it clear to them that the building could not be reconstructed without an economic mechanism that would make it worthwhile. After a long period of discussions, they allowed us to build a 10,000-square meter hotel and 80 small housing units (that could be consolidated), and that's what happened," he explains.

Under the old building, an archeological excavation was conducted in the shape of a "U," which revealed Ottoman vaults. These became public space opening into an interior courtyard. One floor of suites was added above. Two buildings in the back that were a hospital were demolished, and a new building was constructed lengthwise composed of three parts with seven storeys. The physical division of the zoning in the new wings is slightly confusing, because it has both hotel rooms and apartments, but both zonings have an underground parking lot (automated parking for 143 vehicles on five levels) and two separate entrances from the west.

The whole complex has 127 hotel rooms and 32 residential apartments of varying sizes. The hotel has another wing in the building once occupied by the school of nuns from the St. Joseph nunnery on the east side of Yefet Street. This wing has conference rooms, restaurants, and offices.

Gil explains that the design concept was clear to him from the beginning: "From the first day, it was important to me not to touch the old building in any way. If I had to describe our project in one phrase, it would be 'a dialogue between two centuries.' We restored the glory of the 19th century, but the 21st century is present, without flattery or excessive admiration. I wanted to avoid Turkish delight. It's an abstract correspondence between two strong entities, out of respect. Every intervention within the space of the 19th century is through hypermodern means."

You are yourself from Jaffa. Aren't you concerned that the project is a layer that will make the magic of Jaffa disappear?

"There is no doubt that a new population is being put into Jaffa that doesn't have the Jaffa flavor, but what exactly is the original population? I'd like to remind people that Jaffa was empty after the War of Independence. Those who say that they are 'native' to Jaffa, came here in the 1950s from the big and little triangles after the military government was dissolved. Any of the Jewish immigrants who arrived after 1948 who was able to get out of there did so. Who is the authentic Jaffa?

Nevertheless, some say that a specific area was confiscated a made for tourists only.

"The nuns were wonderful, but they're gone, and the church was totally incapable of maintaining this place economically. Most people don't know that women no longer become nuns. Society has to decide what the rules of the game are. If Israeli society thought that it was important to make the building into a museum or a library, it would have to invest tens of millions of our taxpayers' money. We're not there. On the other hand, there is a shortage of hotels on a high standard. The W is a seven-star hotel that will provide an alternative to the King David Hotel in Jerusalem.

Council for the Preservation of Heritage Sites Tel Aviv district director Tamar Tuchler has not forgotten how a state tourist policy for Jaffa was prepared, financed jointly by the Ministry of Tourism and the Tel Aviv municipality, which analyzed the needs and potential of Jaffa. She says that the plan's conclusion was that large hotels would be built in Tel Aviv and boutique hotels in Jaffa. "In Europe, you see cathedrals, power stations, and lighthouses that have become hotels. That's fantastic. I'm not opposed at all to re-use, but only when they do it without harming the structure's quality. I don't understand how you take such important buildings as the French Hospital and the Kishle, which are located in sensitive places, and put a mass of construction into them that damages the profile of Jaffa. This is architectural and environmental violence."

Henya Melichson, a tour guide and activist in the Council for the Preservation of Heritage Sites, believes that the way building preservation is being handled, as reflected in the two hotels, is dangerous to the character of Jaffa. "Any new construction materially detracts from the unique fabric of Jaffa. What is happening in Kishle is the worst. This building is not proportional to the plaza; it's a scandal. There are luxury two-story buildings on Yefet Street, and this W hotel changes all the proportions," she says.

Vered Navon, a Jaffa resident who is researching the city's history, complains that the reconstruction of the buildings emphasizes the esthetic aspect, but ignores the memory of heritage. She says, "There is no historical and cultural continuity. The story is important. The Kishle was a jail. They destroyed what was inside. The hospital also has an interesting story. It sounds like a cliche, but when you erase the past, your present is also lacking."

Lev Jaffa Committee chairperson Sefi Smadja also objects to the new projects, saying, "My heart is broken. When I pass by the clock tower plaza and Yefet Street and see history being erased, it's painful to me. They left the buildings, but they added and gave it to strangers. There's no social aspect here. The state should have used these resources for the benefit of the public and the community."

But it brings new blood and puts new life into the street in the end.

Smadja: "I don't know how much this contributes. It's only in one area, which is already very dense. They're investing only in tourism. It's not as if other part of Jaffa will benefit from the development of the clock tower plaza."

Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - - on December 24, 2017

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2017

Setai Hotel Photo: Website
Setai Hotel Photo: Website
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