Walking Tour: By George!

Who would have thought that some of the city's finest architectural gems were right under our noses?

National Institutions Building 248.88 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
National Institutions Building 248.88
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
In 1952, Knesset opposition leader Menachem Begin organized a massive demonstration to protest against the acceptance of German reparations. In a fiery and passionate street speech, he called this kind of compensation a matter of life and death. He then led thousands of men, women and children on a stormy march to the Knesset, located in the Frumin Building on King George Avenue. Tempers were so high that guards had to hold the crowds back with tear gas. (The Knesset voted to accept the reparations, badly needed by the brand-new state.) On your next weekday trip downtown, try this fascinating circular walk along King George Avenue. Not only will you steep yourself in history, but you will find that most of the structures were constructed in the Bauhaus (International) style - so important that Tel Aviv was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for its Bauhaus neighborhoods. And a few buildings are actually an architectural delight. Begin at No. 2, where a plaque on the wall tells you that King George the Fifth Avenue was officially declared open on December 9, 1924. The festive inauguration ceremony took place in the presence of British high commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel, district governor Sir Ronald Storrs, and Jerusalem mayor Ragheb Bey El Nashashibi. At the time there was nothing there at all, so a makeshift gate (an arch with two rectangular "doors") was erected over the future avenue, to the delight of the hundreds who had gathered there to watch. The banner stretching across the arch read "King George V Avenue" in English, Hebrew and Arabic. After Israel became a state, some of the capital's street names were changed. The municipality suggested replacing the name King George with King David, but the idea was vehemently opposed by Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, Israel's second president. Ben-Zvi is said to have reminded other leaders that George V was king during the time of the Balfour Declaration and had always been a good friend to the Jews (as opposed to George VI, the monarch who reigned when the infamous British White Paper limited immigration to Palestine). Before you move on, look around you at the buildings on each of the four corners to find that they are all only one story high and topped by red-tiled roofs. True, they are mostly rundown and shabby, but they are far more beautiful than anything else you see around you. Built in the 1920s and 1930s, these are the oldest structures in this area and are slated for destruction, so enjoy the sight while you can. Until road works for the light railway reached King George Avenue, you could cross this particular intersection on the diagonal. In fact, this was the first X-shaped junction in the country, created on the day that King George Avenue was paved. Not long afterwards, a policeman began standing in the center of the intersection on a round, covered platform and directing traffic. In the 1950s, Jerusalem's first traffic lights were installed on those very streets. Continue up King George to a decorative "entrance" and plaza on the sidewalk. It was once part of the stunning Talitha Kumi Complex, a German orphanage built by famed missionary/architect Conrad Schick that dated back to the 1860s. Surrounded by a stone wall, the elegant three-story Talitha Kumi complex was torn down a little over a century later to make way for Jerusalem's first department store: Hamashbir Lezarchan. You have probably passed the nearby Hiatt Garden countless times. Perhaps you even have descended into its depths to take advantage of the public restrooms inside. But Hiatt Garden didn't start out as the tiny park it is today. In 1925, an American Zionist group hoping to build a modern hotel purchased a plot along the newly inaugurated King George Avenue. Foundations were dug by the Jewish Labor Brigade - and then the money ran out. Tour guides tell me that on Black Saturday in 1946, when the British rounded up Jewish leaders suspected of harboring "illegal" defensive weapons, they held hundreds of Jerusalem prisoners in what locals still call Shiber Pit (for either the architect who drew up the hotel plans or the former owner of the plot). As time went by, the pit filled up with garbage - an eyesore that annoyed members of the Knesset, whose chambers were next door. The site was then transformed into a little park called Menora Garden for the huge candelabrum standing on a platform in its midst. Today, the park features a large bronze Venetian horse that was a gift from the Slovenian Republic. YOU HAVE reached Beit Frumin, with its rounded corner and horizontal, serrated band. Construction on the structure, intended for commercial and residential purposes, began in 1947 but was halted during the War of Independence. The building housed Israel's parliament from 1949 to 1966, when it moved to new premises on Givat Ram. Until recently this historic site housed the Tourism Ministry, but today it serves as the Jerusalem Rabbinate. A gem of a bookstore is located on the adjacent side street, today a small and unprepossessing pedestrian mall. Comfy couches and a coffee corner make this a veritable paradise for bookworms. Pass Rehov Hama'alot. It is named for the huge apartment complex called Beit Hama'alot at No. 32 which, in turn, is named for the elevator (ma'alit) that was one of the first in the city. Soon you reach the semicircular Yeshurun Central Synagogue, built in the mid-1930s and believed to have been established to counter the city's growing Reform movement. The name appears in the Bible as a synonym for the Jewish people: "There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, who rides on the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty." (Deut. 33:26). Note the Bauhaus style windows and typical lack of ornamentation. Next door you will find the stunning, partly round, partly square Beit Avi Chai. Completed only last year, Beit Avi Chai is a marvelous cultural and social center that reaches out to people from all streams of Judaism with greatly subsidized innovative lectures, workshops, performances and artistic events. On the next corner, an open courtyard faces a complex with three large wings called the National Institutions Building. Here, the three major pre-state organizations have had their headquarters since the early 1930s. Shaped like a horseshoe and constructed in modified Bauhaus style, the building on the left as you face the courtyard houses Keren Hayesod (United Israel Appeal); the Jewish Agency is in the middle; and the wing on the right holds offices of the Jewish National Fund. In the middle of the War of Independence, on March 11, 1948, a car bomb went off in the courtyard. Twelve people were killed - and the Keren Hayesod wing collapsed, only to be rebuilt one story higher. Note the northern wall, next to the JNF: it slants down, like the glacis at David's Tower, and tiny barred windows resemble the slits in the Old City walls used for firing at an enemy. Farther up the street, the Great Synagogue and Heichal Shlomo share a common plaza. Look for symbols on the front of the synagogue - an abstract Ten Commandments, for example - then enter to view a plethora of marble, elegant glass chandeliers, and a splendid display of mezuzot. The gorgeous synagogue interior, accessible by two marble staircases, features red velvet seats and magnificent stained glass windows. It is open from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. on weekdays and for Shabbat prayers. Next door, Heichal Shlomo was originally the seat of the Chief Rabbinate. Today it houses the Wolfson Heritage Museum on the third floor: six rooms with a fantastic collection of Judaica. Museum director Yehuda Levy-Aldema believes that what makes this museum unique is its theme: Why has the Jewish nation endured, when even the strongest of empires has long disappeared from history? Among the items in this museum is a Torah scroll dating back to pre-Inquisition Spain and written on deerskin that has survived every possible catastrophe. In understanding the secret of our long endurance as a nation, Levy-Aldema makes the connection between this Torah scroll and the 2005 Hurricane Katrina, noting that boats sailed out to New Orleans synagogues to save the Torah scrolls. The newest exhibit concerns the Jews of Vilna. It is a thought-provoking, emotional multiscreen production, available if arranged for in advance. Although you can enjoy the museum if you can read Hebrew, I strongly recommend taking part in a guided tour. The museum is open Sunday to Thursday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. There are tours in English that you can join, and during Hanukka there will be tours on the hour (in Hebrew, unless there is a special request). Call 624-7908 for information. The cost is NIS 15 for adults and NIS 7.50 for children and includes the tour. Ask for a key to the rooftop observation deck, which offers breathtaking panoramic views. WHILE ORIGINALLY King George Avenue ran all the way down to what is now Liberty Bell Park, today it ends with the Prima Kings Hotel and Kikar Tzarfat (France Square). So now, cross the road and begin walking back to Jaffa Road. We are used to it by now, and it has a few saving graces - such as an excellent restaurant, newly renovated shining lobby, lovely synagogue and an unusual, glass-enclosed business center. But when erected in the late 1970s, the tall, modernistic Sheraton Hotel to your immediate right angered Jerusalemites, who wanted to preserve the city's skyline. Interestingly, the building stands perpendicular to King George Street instead of facing the road. The nondescript building at No. 45 replaced Goldschmidt House, home of the British Officers' Club during the Mandate period. On March 1, 1947, at an hour when there were few civilians about, Jewish Resistance fighters in British uniforms drove a van through the barbed wire surrounding the entrance. When asked for an entry permit, they opened fire that provided cover for the sappers who ran inside with three bags of explosives (some say tins of combustible gasoline) and ignited the fuse. Soon afterwards, there was a loud explosion and the three-story Goldschmidt House collapsed. Seventeen British officers were killed in the explosion. Although it isn't directly on the street, the structure located behind the former Officers' Club is of special interest. It was built in two stages as a home for Bulus Mau, an Arab who owned a souvenir shop. Look at it from a distance first, to notice that the two stories are vastly different in style. The first floor was constructed during the dying years of Ottoman rule, when arches were all the rage and the ornamental entrance faced the Old City - still the hub of Jerusalem life. An eclectic second story was completed two years after King George Avenue was paved. Now both business and entertainment are centered in the Jerusalem Triangle (Ben-Yehuda, King George and Jaffa), so the exit onto the backyard - also pretty - became the front entrance. Today this fascinating building houses Kerem, a teachers' institute that also offers the public courses in a variety of subjects (such as Italian literature; Agnon; and "Who's Afraid of Rashi?"). Ready for coffee? Try Ta'amon farther down the street and established in 1938. Ta'amon became a favorite watering hole for parliamentarians after the Knesset began meeting in the Frumin Building across the street. For several decades after the Knesset moved, this was the place to meet left-wing friends, members of the media, Jerusalem's bohemia and even the Black Panthers (remember them?). Once at the bottom of King George Avenue, look across Jaffa Road at a colorful mural on the back of a building. Think positive: It depicts a wonderful future for the downtown area when the light railway finally appears on the Jerusalem scene.