We, no doubt, miss out on all kinds of beautiful or intriguing local structures as we speed along to work, school, the stores or whatever our rat race schedule. But Batim Mibifnim, the Jerusalem edition of an annual open-house event, draws our attention to a range of impressive, grandiose, historic or simply beautiful edifices and offers us a once-a- year opportunity to learn something more about own heritage.This year’s Open House takes place over three days (September 22-24) and marks the happening’s tenth anniversary. The free program takes in dozens of public and residential buildings across the capital, as well as hundreds of guided tours for the general public.The three days form part of the global Open House World Wide event, which also runs in a whole slew of major cities, such as New York, London, Rome, Barcelona and Dublin. The Jerusalem incarnation takes place under the auspices of the Jerusalem Development Authority and in cooperation with the municipality.
The Jerusalem program proffers a chance to, for example, get up close to a subterranean space from the Second Temple era in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, a housing project in Katamon that recently underwent a novel renovation, or get a glimpse of the rare books cellar of the Israel Museum, which will take in illustrated children’s books dating back to the 19th century, including some highly valuable editions.Anyone who lives around, or frequents, the area of Rehavia, the Valley of the Cross or Old Katamon will probably have passed the pillbox near the junction of Aza Road and Herzog Street hundreds if not thousands of times. The unassuming rotund two-story structure has been there, overlooking the intersection, for more than 70 years, although it almost seems as if it has been there forever.The pillbox – so named because of its similarity to a medicament container – was built by the British Mandate forces in the mid-1930s, and is one of five dotted around the city. All were put up by the British forces in answer to the Arab uprising of 1936, as a means of controlling strategic locations in the area. The pillbox on Tchernichovsky Street was positioned at an important vantage point from which it was possible to survey all movement through the Valley of the Cross, down today’s Aza Road and south and east.That, and much more will be conveyed over the three days by Dr. Gad Kroizer, who will run free tours of the spot, and will comment on regional military history in the process. “The pillbox was invented during the [Second] Boer War in 1900,” says Kroizer referring to the hostilities between the imperial British forces and the two independent Boer republics of the Orange Free State and the South African Republic.It was a fiercely fought war and the British racked their brains over how to protect the thousands of kilometers of rail lines, which the Boers constantly blew up. “Lord Kitchener [then British Army chiefof- staff and later secretary for war] suggested building what they called blockhouses... along the rail lines, at distances of half a mile,” explains Kroizer. “The principal and primary idea behind the pillbox was to protect soldiers from bomb shrapnel.”That objective became far more achievable when reinforced concrete, which had been invented in the mid-19th century, began to be adapted by the British Army for constructing round blockhouses along the Western Front during World War I, where soldiers were being killed in alarming numbers.
Kroizer says that when the Palestinian Arabs rebelled against British forces the Mandatory authorities were reluctant to use members of the Jewish Yishuv to help them combat the uprising, but eventually gave way. The historian says that the pillbox on Tchernichovsky Street was frequently staffed by armed Jewish guards.Meanwhile, over at 106 Hebron Road, the Atnachta association uses the imposing building to offer temporary shelter for homeless youth at risk in Jerusalem. The hostel accommodates 22 boys and girls aged 13 to 19. “We help youth, regardless of gender, religion or creed, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year,” says Atnachta human resources manager Masha Gottlieb.The building was constructed in 1923, and was one of several residential edifices established by wealthy Palestinian Arabs in the area. “This was one of three sectors of the Baka neighborhood,” explains Moshe Shapira, an architect who will lead tours of the building and its grounds during open house. It is a fascinating building designed in what Shapira terms as the “eclectic style.” There are multifarious architectural elements all over the show, including palmette-like decorative capitals that crown the pillars of the facade balcony. “Note, the balcony balustrade is made of stone,” says Shapira. “That’s pretty rare.”The original owner clearly had an eye for aesthetics. “He also wanted to put on a show for people who passed by along Hebron Road, which was the original Bethlehem Road,” the architectcum- tour guide says. “Look at all the elements he incorporated into the outside of the building.”In addition to the original wrought-iron doors, ball-shaped protuberances dotted over the balcony arches and fetching star forms worked into the richly designed tiled balcony floor, the overall look of the structure is pleasantly enhanced by the subtle interplay of white and reddish stone.And there is plenty to marvel at inside too. Almost all of the original 1923 floor tiles are still in situ, and there is a gorgeous ceiling arch over the original staircase leading up to the first floor. The upper level was also furnished with a number of cozylooking balconies, and parts of the original wooden staircase handrail can be seen and touched.The building also includes a partly subterranean lower floor.Surprisingly the ceiling of the bottom story is not vaulted. “They brought in iron girders to support the ceiling,” explains Shapira.“So they didn’t need to arch it.”A cavernous cistern was also discovered around seven years ago, and you can get a sense of just how cool the interior of the water container is when you walk past an opening which traverses the thick wall to the cistern.Tour participants will also be regaled with plenty of anecdotal material, courtesy of Shapira, when they gather in the welltended backyard, with its herbs and vegetable beds cared for by the current temporary residents. The front of the building sports half a dozen palm trees, all dating to 1923, hence the structure’s nickname, The House of the Palm Trees.Some of the free tours require prior registration, although to take part in the Pillbox and The House of the Palm Trees tours you just have to turn up at the right time. Dr. Kroizer will be at hand at the Pillbox on September 22, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., September 23 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and on September 24 form 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Shapira will give two tours at 106 Hebron Road on September 23 at 9 a.m. and 10 a.m.For more information: batim.itraveljerusalem.com