Ceremony in Sergei’s Courtyard.
(photo credit: SPNI)
After 39 years surrounded by tranquil and verdant gardens, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel will leave Sergei’s Courtyard in downtown Jerusalem this week when the property reverts to Russian ownership. SPNI’s Jerusalem branch will move to Hebron Road and the JVP Media Quarter building for the time being.
On Sunday, SPNI, the last tenant in the compound, held an intimate farewell party in the garden courtyard.
Deputy Mayor Naomi Tsur, the former director of SPNI’s Jerusalem branch, representatives of the city’s preservation associations, environmental activists and SPNI employees recalled some of their major victories over the years, including fights against the Safdie proposal and the Gazelle Valley, as well as the history of the courtyard.
“SPNI worked in Sergei’s Courtyard for decades, with the goal of turning it into a central point for environmental enrichment programs and in order to protect one of the most impressive compounds in the city, which was open to the greater public,” said former SPNI Jerusalem branch director Pazit Schweid, who now serves as the national urban programming coordinator. “I hope that also in the future residents and tourists will be able to enjoy this magical corner of Jerusalem.”
An official at the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv said that the immediate plan for the historic structure is to carry out an interior renovation – plumbing and lighting – as well as an exterior facelift to make it look more faithful to the original.
The official could not say how long the renovations would take, and that it would also depend on how long it would take to get the necessary permits.
The Jerusalem Municipality’s Preservation Committee examined two plans for the compound in June, but has not made any final approvals.
Once the renovations are over, the plans are for the facility to be used as a Russian cultural center, which will include a hostel for pilgrims, a library and halls for performances and exhibits.
Funding for the project, the official said, will come from the Russian government.
The property was transferred following a 2007 cabinet decision, before a visit by then-prime minister Ehud Olmert to Russia, which approved the transfer of ownership of the czarist-era landmark in the center of the capital to the Russian government. It went into effect in 2008.
The building was constructed in 1890 to accommodate Russian pilgrims visiting the Holy Land, and was named after Czar Alexander II’s son, Sergei Alexandrovich.
Israel acquired some 90 percent of the Russian Compound in 1964, paying the former Soviet Union $3.5 million. The purchase was dubbed the “Orange Deal” because Israel, lacking hard currency, paid the Russians in citrus fruit. Sergei’s Courtyard, however, was part of the remaining 10% not covered in the deal, and Russian President Vladmir Putin made regaining the property a priority during his previous term.