A crown jewel

Canada’s storied Reichmann family has built structures that are among the world’s most famous. Their latest project may be their proudest achievement.

By
August 9, 2012 17:02
Reichmann family interior deisgn

Reichmann family interior deisgn 521. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem /The Jerusalem Post)

 
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Jerusalem is home to some of the world’s most historic, iconic and majestic structures. From the Old City, Hezekiah’s Tunnel, the Mount of Olives and Yad Vashem to world-class hotels and restaurants, the capital has never lacked for architectural wonder and grandeur.

One of the city’s most breathtaking landmarks includes the former Palace Hotel – a stone’s throw from the Old City, situated on 0.6 hectares (about 1.5 acres) of coveted land – which was acquired by the famous Reichmann family of Toronto for over $30 million in 2005.

For roughly seven years, the complex, which is still largely quarantined from sight by metal barriers, has been in the process of being converted into a Waldorf- Astoria hotel (now a Hilton luxury brand), featuring an adjacent, ultra-luxury, 10-story private residence.

“The property became available after the Regency Group decided to put it up for sale,” says Joseph Reichmann, a softspoken, Orthodox, second-generation member of the Jewish dynasty, who is spearheading the massive renovation.

“My family took it as an opportunity to develop something beautiful.”

Indeed, designed by the renowned Turkish architect Nahas Bey, with a mixture of Greco-Roman, Renaissance, Gothic, Romanesque and Mameluke elements, the original Palace Hotel, which resembles an ornate coliseum, opened its doors in 1929 to great acclaim.

Situated in one of Jerusalem’s prime locations – at the intersection of King David breathtaking views of the Western Wall and Independence Park, the hotel is ideally situated.



“This is one of the most beautiful architectural buildings anywhere in Israel, certainly in Jerusalem,” Reichmann says.

“And the combination of the residential building with the hotel and tower on top of it creates an exceptional property.”

So exceptional, in fact, that the Reichmann family – which had never ventured into the hotel business – jumped at the opportunity to own the property when it went up for sale.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says.

THE REICHMANN family is most notable for the construction of the First Canadian Place in Toronto, World Financial Center in Battery Park, New York, and Canary Wharf in London.

The Canary Wharf project drew international headlines and forced the family to file for bankruptcy in 1992, shortly after its opening, due to the collapse of London’s commercial property market.

However, the Reichmanns successfully regrouped years later, creating another multibillion-dollar firm, and bought back a large stake in the now prosperous Canary Wharf (which the family subsequently sold), while reacquiring and developing a number of other international properties.

According to Joseph, a nephew of the group of brothers who conceived and launched the family business from Toronto decades ago, his uncles could not resist the opportunity to own part of the city they so love.

“We are doing it because it’s in Jerusalem,” he says. “It’s that simple.”

Still, Reichmann concedes that the process of receiving the necessary permits and general approval from the city to buy and renovate the property was fraught with work and bureaucracy – and a very specific demand to painstakingly maintain the ornate beauty of the edifice’s celebrated exterior and famous grand circular staircase.

“The city and Israel Lands Authority, together with the Jerusalem Development Company, asked us to recreate the historic Palace Hotel, and at the same time to turn the former tax building – which didn’t have any historical significance – into a residential project. It was a very long, intensive process,” Reichmann says from his office adjacent to the enormous construction site, which has been gutted, excavated and renovated.

He says he is planning the Waldorf-Astoria Jerusalem’s much-anticipated unveiling for early next year.

Why he and his family submitted to the obvious agita of such a complex and timeconsuming undertaking becomes understandable when light is shed upon the Reichmann family’s history, which may be as intriguing as the structure itself.

ORIGINALLY FROM a small town in Hungary called Beled, near the Austrian border, the paternal side of Reichmann’s family settled in Vienna.

In 1938 they fled to Paris to avoid Nazi persecution. The following year, when it became clear that they would also have to flee France, the Reichmanns sought refuge in Tangiers, Morocco, where Joseph was born in 1949.

However, the maternal side of his family was not as fortunate.

“In 1944 my mother’s family was deported from Beled to Auschwitz,” Reichmann says. “That year, similar to this year, 17 Tamuz [fast day] was on a Shabbat when they arrived in Auschwitz.

By the afternoon, apart from a few survivors, all of the family and townspeople had been murdered.

“The majority of her family was killed, but my mother [Esti], who was 17 at the time, along with a few of her young cousins, survived the concentration camps,” Reichmann says. “In 1945, after the liberation, they joined my father’s family in Tangiers, and one year later my mother married my father.”

In 1955, the Orthodox family finally emigrated from Morocco to Canada.

The five Reichmann brothers were Joseph’s father, Edward, the eldest; Louis, who moved to Montreal; and Albert, Paul and Ralph, who moved to Toronto.

Shortly thereafter, the industrious and ambitious brothers went on to create two successful businesses, including floor coverings and real estate.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Indeed, the Reichmann family went on to become one of the wealthiest in Canada, with a net worth of over $1 billion.

JOSEPH REICHMANN, a yeshiva-educated Jerusalem resident who moved to Israel with his parents from Montreal in 1968, was charged by his Canadian uncles with leading the massive renovation and development of the Waldorf.

The hotel will have 224 standard rooms and suites, luxurious public spaces and amenities including two restaurants, a beautiful atrium, a grand ballroom and 15 conference rooms.

The residential units, situated in a tower adjacent to the hotel, will feature a private lobby with elevators, serving only 30 units. Residents will enjoy use of all of the hotel’s services, including a luxury health spa.

“It’s going to be exceptional,” says Reichmann. “Can I say ‘unparalleled?’” Beginning in 2007, Reichmann’s team started demolishing the old building and gutting it, with the exception of the façade, which has been maintained.

They then excavated the site, going down some 15 meters (three floors) to create a parking lot, conference rooms and a grand ballroom.

The hotel now has enough space for 150 cars for residents and guests, an elegant, world-class banquet hall for corporate and private events, and more than a dozen state-of-the-art conference rooms – all below ground level.

“Space in Jerusalem is in very short supply,” Reichmann notes. “So we had to dig deep to get more of it.”

“It’s a completely new building,” he adds. “The rooms are now between 40 and 45 square meters each, whereas they were much smaller before. The deal was as long as we maintained the exterior and main staircase, we had freedom to recreate the interior.”

Reichmann contracted Feigin Architects, one of Israel’s premier architectural firms, and employed roughly 350 workmen, who labor from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week.

The hotel and residential building will share the Waldorf moniker. They are in the final stages of development and will be managed by Waldorf-Astoria, under the Hilton brand.

Asked what will distinguish the Waldorf- Astoria Jerusalem from its renowned, nearby competitors – the David Citadel, Mamilla and King David hotels – Reichmann smiles, deflecting any notion of competitiveness.

“They’re not competitors, they’re colleagues,” he says. “There is enough business for all of us.”

Still, he adds that he hired an Istanbul- based interior design firm to immaculately decorate the entire hotel, and notes that the Waldorf will feature uncommon space and elegance. “Our internal room and public spaces will be very spacious and very classical,” he says. “Our interior design is traditional and elegant – from the furnishings to the decor to the coloring. And I think that the service will be exceptional.”

The starting price for a residential unit is $4 million, and goes up to $6.5m. for the larger units. Reichmann, who says the residential tower has reached 60 percent occupancy, notes that while several Israeli buyers have acquired apartments, the majority of the owners are foreigners.

As for the hotel, he says: “We expect international visitors to the city who want to have the opportunity to stay at the Waldorf-Astoria Jerusalem – Christian groups, Russian groups, French groups – whoever can afford it can stay.”

Reichmann compares the property to the legendary Plaza Hotel in New York City, noting that the convergence of upscale hotels featuring private residences is a relatively new, but popular, phenomenon.

“Conrad Hilton purchased the Waldorf- Astoria in New York in 1945, and in 2007 the Hilton group took the name and launched a luxury brand,” explains Reichmann. “Now there are 25 Waldorf- Astorias around the world, some with residential units. Independent property owners are buying and building the properties, with Hilton managing them.”

Asked if he has had the opportunity to meet the most famous Hilton of all – Paris – Reichmann, a modest and erudite man, demurred: “I think we run in different circles.”

In the meantime, he says he is confident his family’s venture will positively contribute to Jerusalem’s well-being. “This project will cause a lot of the well-to-do-people around the world to stay longer in the city, strengthen its economy and maintain its beauty,” he says.

“My family and I are very much looking forward to opening the Waldorf-Astoria Jerusalem to the world. It is the opportunity of a lifetime.”

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