‘Who will remember why it was called the German Colony?’

Another of the neighborhood’s historical buildings is set to be destroyed.

Rehov Emek Refaim 48 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Rehov Emek Refaim 48 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The German Colony is one of the more picturesque neighborhoods of the city. Here and there one can spot some 19th-century Templer buildings that have survived the ravages of time, political oscillations and the plans of property developers.
There are also a couple of Bauhaus buildings that, unfortunately, have been extended and redesigned so that very little of the original architectural features can be discerned. Now, one of the few remaining historic single-story edifices on Rehov Emek Refaim, at No. 48, along with its garden, is about to disappear.
When one considers the great deal of support for preserving the building, the decision to demolish it seems somewhat surprising. Besides various pressure groups, such as the ad hoc Save 48 Emek Refaim Committee, and Jerusalem district director of the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites Itzik Shweky, the Jerusalem Municipality itself opposes the plan to knock down the building, which was built in the early 1930s, and replace it with a five-story edifice, which is to include two underground levels.
The mystifying meandering saga gets even stranger when one learns that, last August, Jerusalem municipal engineer and architect Shlomo Eshkol actually wrote a letter to the appeals subcommittee of the National Planning and Construction Committee, which reviewed the arguments for and against the preservation of Emek Refaim 48, clearly stating that he strongly opposed the demolition. This, he stated clearly in the summary paragraph, was the official stance of the municipality. The letter never made it to the subcommittee and the fate of the building was sealed.
“Yes, the letter should have been sent to the committee,” says a senior municipal official who prefers to remain anonymous. “Unfortunately a secretary forgot to send it. It’s a regrettable human error. We all make them, but this one proved to be costly. There is no way back for the building now.”
Shweky, who is understandably not happy with the situation, has been at the forefront of the battle to save the building for over three years. In his statement to the District Planning and Construction Committee in May 2007, he noted that “the German Colony is a very important cultural asset of the Jerusalem landscape.”
He also pointed out that the entire neighborhood was designated for preservation in the very first Israeli master plan for Jerusalem, drawn up by Heinz Rau in 1948. “A detailed town construction plan, for the conservation of neighborhood 2878 – including the German Colony, the Greek Colony, Katamon, Talbiyeh and the area bordered by Rehov Emek Refaim and and Rehov Hizkiyahu Hamelech – does not permit any changes to the buildings, fences and features of the streets.”
According to Shweky there are all sorts of goings-on that he fails to grasp. “After my first objection to the demolition plan, in May 2007, was rejected we lodged another appeal, which was supposed to be signed by three officials, including a representative of the Tourism Ministry. For some reason, before the appeal was submitted the ministry man withdrew his support and said he wouldn’t sign. I think that was an instruction from a higher authority – politics intervened.”
Shweky adds that, after some to-ing and fro-ing, the Urban Conservation Committee decided to preserve the building and to ask architect and town planner Goby Kertesz to draw up a plan for the entire area.
“At this point I was optimistic about the fate of the building, because we had the municipality on board too.” On the other hand, the building on Emek Refaim was only listed as a Grade-4 building which, Shweky explains, means it could be demolished with the only proviso being that whatever is built on the site should be commensurate with the local architectural milieu.
Dvir Suramello, from the Save 48 Emek Refaim Committee, is simply mortified by the developments surrounding the building, particularly considering the unique character of the historic buildings in the neighborhood.
“The German Colony is special because, during the Ottoman rule here, Christians were not allowed to build much, so the only things they put up were institutional buildings. This part of Jerusalem is one of the first neighborhoods to be built outside the Old City, and was built by Christians, with residences. Here you have an architectural style which is a synthesis of east and west which does not exist anywhere else in the world.”
While pledging his continuing efforts to thwarting the plan to reassign the plot at Emek Refaim 48, Suramello is not overly optimistic.
“I think the chances of stopping the demolition are small because, in legal terms, they went through all the necessary stages.”
Meanwhile, the anonymous municipality official believes the current municipality is heading in the right direction. “The house at Rehov Emek Refaim 48 will go, and that is sad, but we are working hard to safeguard other important buildings in Jerusalem. We now have seven personnel in the Planning and Environment Unit and we are aiming to reach 10.”
One of the sticking points of building conservation over the years has been the lack of an authorized list of relevant structures.
That, according to the official, is currently being addressed.
“During Olmert’s and Lupolianski’s terms of office, everything was easy come, easy go. In January 2009, we said we would publish the conservation list that existed at the time, with 3,000 buildings, within five months, and it was released in May of that year. By next year we plan to issue a new list, with 8,000 buildings to be conserved.”
Meanwhile, Shweky is considering his options with regard to the seemingly doomed house on Emek Refaim. “We will consider taking the case to court. The whole thing is ridiculous, when a beautiful building that has been designated as a building to be preserved is facing total demolition.”
That is a sentiment with which 85-year-old German Colony resident Yehuda Ziv totally agrees. “What is happening here is scary. When I moved here, over 20 years ago, there were plenty of lovely buildings here. What will be left of the old German architecture here in 10 years’ time? Who, then, will remember why it was called the German Colony?”