The inside story

Nicole and Jeff Gafni are displaying the home they renovated themselves in a 115-year-old building in Musrara as part of the Houses From Within event.

Gafni Home 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Gafni Home 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As it does each year, this week’s Houses From Within event, which takes place all over the capital today and tomorrow, offers Jerusalemites and out-of-towners a rare opportunity to get a glimpse of some of the city’s finer public buildings and domestic residences.
Nicole and Jeff Gafni have been living in their rambling home at 24 Heleni Hamalka Street in Musrara for around 30 years. The front yard is a delightful hodgepodge of plants of every shape and hue, old flagstones, trees, bushes and an assortment of utensils of yesteryear, not to mention some ceramic works of art by Nicole hanging on the front wall.
As we sit down at a marble-topped garden table, Jeff retells some of his family’s colorful story, which meanders across continents and through all sorts of momentous historic events. The short version is that Gafni was born in England, relocated with his family to Argentina at the age of two, and they all eventually made it here in 1949. The family lived in different parts of the country until Gafni’s Foreign Ministryemployee father was posted to Jerusalem in 1953. Gafni has lived in Jerusalem ever since.
Now 69, a veteran of the fierce battle at Ammunition Hill during the Six Day War “and several other scraps,” as Gafni puts it, the former paratrooper still serves in the IDF reserves and is “the oldest reserve combat soldier in the army,” he notes with pride. The Gafnis’ association with the large home on Heleni Hamalka Street, all 650 sq.m. of it – though they do not own the entire building – began in 1978, when Nicole spotted it on the market and went for it. “She had a special talent for seeing the potential of this house at a time when decent people didn’t live in Musrara,” says Jeff. “This was not a good neighborhood back then.”
He joined in the restoration and building project four years later. Jeff says they have done a lot to their home, moving the kitchen from the back to the front of the house, draining a cistern and converting it into a spacious basement with a storage room, a work room, several seating areas and even a corner full of his military paraphernalia. Work is currently under way on a second cistern.
Although he initially trained as a lawyer, Gafni has mostly earned his keep as an architect, building, designing and restoring all manner of structures. He says he approached the makeover of his current abode with the utmost reverence for its original state.The building has been around since 1896, when it was the home of an Arab doctor.
The ground floor served as a clinic, with the residential area upstairs.
As one would expect of an old building, the ceilings are high and the house is flooded with natural light, even in the guest bedroom, which has low, arched windows. Everywhere you look, the space appears to have been utilized to the maximum. Gafni is very proud of the work he and his wife have put in thus far, noting that teamwork is crucial.
“This house almost cost me fistfights and, on about half a dozen occasions, a divorce,” he declares. “There is not one nail here that was put in by me alone, and that’s very important. Nicole is my critic and my partner. She is not an architect but she has keen insight and a grasp of aesthetics.”
And there is great attention to detail. “Look at the bars,” he says of the tall iron gate at the entrance to the house. “If you look closely you might be able to notice that the bars at the top are narrower than the ones lower down. That’s because the original ones are 20 millimeters thick and we could only get bars 18 millimeters thick.”
Then there is a wooden door leading off from the kitchen to a corridor. It looks as though it came with the house but, in fact, the opening originally served a very different purpose.
“There was a cupboard here, and this door is original, almost 120 years old. I stripped it and only waxed it. It took me ages,” Gafni explains.
Various ceramic works by Nicole decorate the living area, and a compact spiral staircase leads down to the main converted cistern. There is also an abundance of antique furniture, including a delightful Victorian dining table and matching chairs.
Gafni obviously has a weakness for the antique, especially venerable structures, and he treats them accordingly. “I’m fascinated by old buildings,” he says. “Old buildings, for me, does not just mean a structure. They have a soul, they speak to you in a very special language. You can’t learn it in any university or school. For me it’s a love affair. It’s about understanding the buildings, not just in the sense of what they want from you but it’s much deeper – what I can do with them without ruining them. It’s a sort of tug-of-war between functionality, how the building should function according to the person who owns it, and how you preserve while you convert it into another format without hurting the special aesthetics of the building. It’s a special language which you have to preserve.”
Gafni is proud of what he and his wife have achieved with the house thus far, and he plans to get to other parts of the building, which he does not yet own, in due course.
Not just any Tom, Dick or Harry would turn his home into a public space once a year, but Gafni is keen to display the fruits of his and Nicole’s labor.
“I’m a show-off,” he states, “so why not show off the house too?”
IN ADDITION to private residences and public buildings, the Houses From Within event includes several outdoor tours in and around Jerusalem, as well as a visit to the tunnels being dug for the high-speed railway that will link the capital and Tel Aviv, a walking tour along part of Jaffa Road that will look at the preservation work entailed in building the light rail, a trip along Hanevi’im Street and a tour of Ha’arazim Valley that takes in the rehabilitation work on the riverbed there and the construction of a cycling path.
The sites included in the Houses From Within program cover much of the city, including the downtown area, Nahlaot, Givat Shaul, Kiryat Moshe, Baka, the German Colony and the Rockefeller Museum in east Jerusalem.
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