All change at Jaffa Station

At the newly restored Hatahana, Jaffa’s first railway station, Tel Avivians can experience an exciting fusion of history and the present day.

Yaffo Tahana (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yaffo Tahana
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Between the sea and Neveh Tzedek stands the old Jaffa railway station, a cluster of buildings and iron track that for 60 years were hidden from public view. Decaying and abandoned in a closed compound, their important role in the history of pre-State Israel was almost forgotten.
First opened in 1892, Jaffa station was the busy terminus of the first railroad in the Middle East. From here, thousands of tourists, pilgrims and businesspeople – and thousands of tons of freight – were transported from Jaffa Port to Jerusalem, and later as far as Egypt.
Now this important site has been given a new lease of life.
In a joint venture between the Tel Aviv Municipality, city-owned urban planning company Ezra v’Bitzaron, and private investors the Vitania Group and Florentine A.M. Assets, over NIS 100 million have been invested to rescue Jaffa station from oblivion.
“This is an important historic site, with an important legacy from the Templer era,” Ezra v’Bitzaron CEO Eli Ginsburg told Metro. “We wanted to preserve it in the very best way possible.”
In total, 22 historic buildings, including the station itself, have been lovingly and painstakingly restored. The result is Hatahana – The Station – a combination of historical site and upmarket entertainment complex that opened its doors to the public this year.
After 60 years of neglect, restoring the station complex was no easy task. “Since it was abandoned in 1948, the site had turned into a jungle,” comments Ginsburg.
Responsible for the lengthy and meticulous restoration process were Jaffa-based architects Eyal Ziv and Amnon Bar Or.
“With historic buildings like these, we have to use materials identical to the originals,” says Ziv. “It took seven years of research to gather all the information we needed.”
The original Jaffa station and railroad also took years to build. British financier, banker and philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore first advanced the idea of a rail connection between Jaffa and Jerusalem in 1857. Montefiore believed a railway was an essential step in developing the country’s industry, but was unable to raise the necessary capital to build it.
In 1888, Jewish entrepreneurs Joseph Navon and Joseph Amzalak successfully petitioned the Turkish Sultan for a license to construct a railroad.
Like Montefiore, Navon and Amzalak were unable to raise the required capital. So they sold the license to a group of Parisian businessmen, whose company, Le Société du Chemin de Fer Ottoman de Jaffa à Jérusalem et Prolongement, constructed 86 kilometers of track between Jaffa and Jerusalem.
The new railway, which opened in 1892, was Eretz Israel’s largest ever civil engineering project. Half of Jaffa turned out to watch the test-run of the first locomotive, and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, reviver of the Hebrew language, coined a new Hebrew word – rakevet (train).
Modernity had finally arrived in Eretz Israel.
It took up to four hours to travel from Jaffa to Jerusalem (compared to two days by road); pilgrims, tourists and locals alike flocked to ride the train. As well as passengers, the train transported freight: By 1913, 43,000 tons annually were passing through Jaffa station, a sign of the rapid development of regional industry and foreign trade.
Jaffa station was a large, bustling industrial and passenger complex that straddled the border between Jewish Neveh Tzedek and the Arab Manshiya neighborhood.
“There are three types of building in Hatahana,” describes Eyal Ziv. “The station buildings, Arab houses that were part of Manshiya, and several German Templer buildings.” These Templer buildings were a hugely important part of Jaffa station, says Ziv.
In 1900, Templer Hugo Wieland purchased plots of land next to the station. “Wieland built a factory for floor tiles and cement works,” explains Ziv. “He also built a large family home next to it, and later a factory shop.”
Wieland’s villa was luxurious. Its beautiful lounge boasted a painted ceiling, wall murals, a coal fireplace and decorative tile flooring. A carefully tended private garden surrounded the villa.
All the Wieland buildings have been restored to their former glory. “We used the same materials as Wieland,” adds Ziv.
The factory remained in operation until the late 1930s, modernizing and transforming the concrete construction products industry. Instead of importing materials from abroad, cement bricks – known as Wieland stone – were made locally. They were transported by rail all over the region.
French ownership of the Jaffa-Jerusalem railway came to an end under the British Mandate. The British created a new company, Palestine Railways, to manage the route, but Jaffa station’s importance as a passenger and freight depot was already in decline.
In the 1930s, in the wake of violent Arab riots, including in Manshiya, activity moved away from Jaffa to the new station at Beit Hadar in Tel Aviv.
Jaffa station was finally abandoned in 1948.
According to Eyal Ziv, the issue of what exactly should be done with the 5,500-square-meter complex was carefully debated.
Instead of creating a museum on the site, its developers decided that Jaffa station should become a living, public area once again – this time, an elegant entertainment complex.
“We wanted to create something modern, which at the same time preserved the past and reflected the period these buildings are from,” says Ziv. “Rather than a big mall, with chain fashion shops and cafes of the sort you can see all over Tel Aviv, we decided on small boutique stores, coffee shops, restaurants, galleries.”
Another important aspect of Hatahana is to form a connection between two parts of the city – Tel Aviv and Jaffa.
“Since the area was closed in 1948, it was like a hole between Tel Aviv and Jaffa,” Ziv explains. “We wanted to link the old Manshiya neighborhood with Eilat Street (in south Tel Aviv) and Jerusalem Boulevard (in Jaffa).”
The Hatahana project is an integral part of the wider renovations and restorations around south Tel Aviv and Jaffa, including the revival of Old Jaffa, Jaffa Port and Neveh Tzedek, and the construction of a new park and promenade in Jaffa.
Hatahana opened just a few months ago, and is already a popular Tel Aviv attraction. “It’s incredibly successful, with over 30,000 visitors every weekend,” remarks Ginsburg proudly.
The site’s attractions include Cafe Hatahana for coffee and cake on the former train platform, the Vicky Christina bar for delicious sangria in the shade of an ancient ficus tree, and the chic Shushka Shvili for delicate tapas and a wonderful view from the roof of the Red House, an atmospheric Arab building. There are fashion, art, antique and jewelry boutiques, a large art bookstore, and an organic food market every Friday.
Yet Hatahana’s magic comes mostly from its unique atmosphere as a historic site: Strolling around the complex or standing on the station platform, it’s easy to imagine being transported back to a time of steam trains, pilgrims and pioneers.
“We wanted to create a place where people can walk around,” says Ziv, “We want them to enjoy their city’s history and culture on foot, the way people do in Europe.”