In 1932, the Edison Theater was constructed atop a vacant tract in the spacious Zichron Moshe neighborhood, a residential quarter famous for its enlightened population. Named after the American genius credited with inventing the first movie projector, the Edison was one of the first of its kind in Jerusalem - and by far the fanciest.
Yes Montand and other noted performers appeared on its stage as did the pre-state Philharmonic Orchestra, and ceremonies and festivals were conducted in the elaborate hall and outside.
In later years, violent demonstrations took place as the neighborhood changed and haredi factions attempted to prevent ticket sales on the Sabbath.
The Edison Theater was located at Rehov Yeshayahu 14, but it was demolished in 2005 and all that remains of it is a gigantic hole, where foundations are being laid for a large apartment complex.
Nearly 4,000 structures in new Jerusalem (outside the Old City walls) have been designated worthy of preservation. Several hundred such structures have already disappeared from the Jerusalem scene, and even if slated for preservation, are frequently looted or become so dilapidated that they cannot be saved.
As a result, watchdog organizations like the Council for the Preservation of Historic Sites and Residents for the Preservation of Jerusalem are constantly on their toes.
Many a Jerusalem landmark has gone the way of the Edison Theater, carrying with it piece after piece of our historic legacy, and others still have been ’rescued.’
Take the Steimatzky bookstore and coffee shop at the Mamilla Mall, situated in a house that once belonged to a family named Stern. When Theodor Herzl came to Israel in 1898 to meet with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and ask for his help, he stayed with his good friends the Sterns.
Since the historic house was situated on a street in the old Mamilla neighborhood, precisely where construction was about to begin on the new mall, it was taken apart stone by stone and reconstructed at its present site.
One of the Stern descendants told me that it makes her groan every time she walks through the mall and sees each brick on the house colored with the number it was given so that it could be properly replaced.
Not only is it out of place, but the house looks silly, she says.
Other methods of ’preservation’ are even more ridiculous. The once splendiferous structure at Rehov Agron 30 is slated to become a Waldorf-Astoria in 2010. Called the Palace Hotel when completed in 1929, the grandiose structure was the brainchild of the Supreme Muslim Council and meant to counter Jewish expansion outside the Old City walls.
Jerusalem Mufti Haj Amin el-Husseini put out a tender for construction. It was taken up by an Arab contractor and two Jewish architects: Chaim Weizmann’s brother-in-law Tuvia Donia and Hagana member Baruch Katinka.
Considering that the mufti visited daily and that most of the laborers were Arabs, it is astounding that the hotel walls contained two built-in hiding places for Jewish-held weapons.
Forbidden by the British to bear arms of any kind, the Jews had no choice but to prepare secret caches for weapons that they could use in self-defense. Called sliks, these hideaways were located all over the country; the two at the Palace Hotel were designed by Katinka.
When the British Peel Commission came to Jerusalem in 1936 to discuss the ’Palestine problem,’ they held a number of their meetings at the fabulous Palace Hotel. Incredibly, Katinka managed to plant microphones in some of the electric wires so that the Jews could keep abreast of current events.
Built in medieval Spanish style, the Palace Hotel was an architectural delight. Four stories high, it boasted graceful staircases and intricately grilled railings, shiny marble floors and magnificent columns.
But in preparation for the new Waldorf-Astoria the insides were completely torn down. Today all that is left of this splendid structure is the facade - a strange way to preserve a historic site.
Yet another historical structure that was demolished is Alliance, the first Jewish trade school in Jerusalem, founded in 1882 by the Paris-based Alliance Israelite Universelle (Kiah).
Except for the academic Lemel School, Alliance was the only modern educational facility in Jerusalem. It was especially important because it taught useful professions when so many Jerusalemites were still living off hand-outs from abroad. One of the school’s most famous teachers was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who took the position only after it was agreed that he could teach in Hebrew.
In 1970, the historic Alliance and its lovely gardens were razed and replaced by the tall, ugly Clal Center on the corner of Rehov Kiah and Jaffa Road. All that remains of Alliance today is its decorative iron gate, rarely noticed by passersby and not even in its original spot.
Indeed, if it weren’t for an enormous mural just up the street (in the Mahaneh Yehuda market parking lot), the building would be forgotten. Fortunately, the mural features a marvelous painting of the complex, together with its large garden and photographs of teachers and students.
AS MORE realtors and contractors get permission to build in 19th and early 20th century areas like the German Colony, on Rehov Hanevi’im, the Bukharan Quarter and along Jaffa Road, the danger of losing architectural and historic gems becomes ever more real.
Among other historic sites on the preservation list are the Kaminitz Hotel, Navon Bey’s mansion and the Pasha’s Villa — located between Rehov Hanevi’im and Jaffa Road — and the Schneller Compound on Rehov Malchei Yisrael.
The Kaminitz Hotel was built in 1878 by German banker Paul Bergheim, and was meant to be a luxurious family home. But Bergheim, who established Jerusalem’s first bank and helped create the foundation for Jerusalem’s modern commerce, went bankrupt.
In 1883 Eliezer Kaminitz, the son of a hotelier who owned a famous guesthouse in the Old City, took over the house and turned it into a five-star hotel. Besides adding onto the building and planting a lush garden, Kaminitz prepared a special driveway for carriages, which led off Jaffa Road. Baron Edmund de Rothschild was one of his early lodgers.
The Kaminitz Hotel is accessible through an opening at 68 Jaffa Road. While you can still see how beautiful it was in the past, the interior of what was once the most elegant establishment in the holy city is now truly a mess.
The house of Navon Bey features an impressive mixture of Eastern and Western architecture. This once magnificent 19th-century edifice is accessed from a grungy parking lot at Rehov Hanevi’im 59.
The first to inhabit this mansion was entrepreneur Yoseph Navon, honored with the title ’bey’ by the Turks. It was Navon who initiated Israel’s first railroad, which began running from Jaffa to Jerusalem in 1892.
Designed as a pyramid, the villa boasted a long first floor, a shorter second story and a gabled roof with a tiny rounded window and four turrets. In its prime, it was surrounded by spectacular gardens with flowerbeds, fruit trees and woodlands. There were even a stable and carriage house out back.
Since Navon’s family left the house in 1917, it has changed hands umpteen times — even becoming an elegant English Tearoom in the 1990s. Today the shutters are rusted and the back of this once sumptuous edifice is a disaster.
The Pasha’s Villa, a third formerly superb building, is located at Rehov Hanevi’im 61, near the house of Navon Bey. Built at the end of the 19th century by the Greek Orthodox Church, it was rented out to the Turkish governors of Jerusalem.
During receptions, the Turkish military orchestra played concerts in the fabulous garden. Later the building was bought by Menahem Banin, a wealthy Jewish merchant from Aden. At the moment, it is hard to imagine how this rundown structure could have been a governor’s mansion.
THE SCHNELLER Compound’s story begins with Father Johann Ludwig Schneller, a devout Lutheran missionary, who came to Jerusalem at the age of 34, intent on serving the local population. He bought a plot of land on what is today Rehov Malchei Yisrael in 1855, five years before Sir Moses Montefiore founded the first Jewish neighborhood outside the Old City walls, when there was nothing but wilderness in all directions.
Although the property was several kilometers away from the safety of the Old City, Schneller bravely began building a beautiful house for his family. But after several attacks by marauders, they were forced to move inside the walls.
A few years later the Turks erected outposts along Jaffa Road between Jerusalem and the port city of Jaffa. Armed guards on horseback patrolled the entire road, and since Schneller’s home was nearby, the family returned.
That same year, Lebanese Druze massacred 10,000 Maronite Christians in Lebanon and Syria. Schneller rushed up North, and came home with nine orphaned boys. From this small nucleus of unfortunate youngsters sprang the largest Protestant educational facility in the Middle East.
By the end of 1861 there were nearly 40 boys in what became known as the Syrian Orphanage. As the years went by, Schneller bought up more land and constructed additional stunning buildings, including the first red brick structure in Jerusalem. The orphanage began accepting girls in the late 1860s, and built a magnificent dormitory for blind children.
Donations poured in from European Christians, who also sent useful items like clothes and blankets. All kinds of activities and vital services went on at the orphanage, which ran a clinic, printing press, laundry, bakery and school. Schneller was unwavering in his efforts to make sure the children he cared for would become productive members of society; by the time they were sent out into the world at 18, all of them had learned a useful trade.
At the onset of World War II, the British shut down the orphanage and threw its German teachers out of the country. The British then took over the compound, known as the Schneller Barracks, and added several watchtowers and huts.
During the War of Independence Schneller became the Hagana’s home base for Jerusalem-area campaigns. Today Schneller is where you take your soldier when he or she is home on leave and needs a doctor.
But the army is clearing out in less than two months, and the compound - whose green onion-shaped tower is a Jerusalem landmark — will be left unmanned.
A municipal spokeswoman reports that the city is working with the Interior Ministry and the army to safeguard Schneller from vandalism after it is vacated and adds that the ministry and army are responsible for the compound’s maintenance.
The spokeswoman also notes that there are no plans afoot to demolish the Kaminitz Hotel, Navon Bey’s mansion and the Pasha’s Villa, and that the city is gathering information about them to decide their level of preservation.