The stately home of Israel's first president

Weizmann’s residence, designed by world-famous architect Erich Mendelsohn, fell into disrepair, but careful restoration its magnificence.

Chaim Weitzman residence 521 (photo credit: Uriel Messa)
Chaim Weitzman residence 521
(photo credit: Uriel Messa)
The house in which Chaim Weizmann, the country’s first president, lived with his wife Vera stands surrounded by gardens in the campus of the Weizmann Institute of Science, a short distance but a world away from the frenetic activity in the laboratories and research facilities of the latter, which he founded in 1934 as the Sieff Research Institute.
The magnificent house, designed by the world-famous Jewish architect Erich Mendelsohn and completed in 1936, was home to the Weizmanns until Vera died in 1966. Today it is open to visitors, although one hesitates to call it a museum. There is nothing musty or dank about the home. It feels lived in, as if at any moment, a door will open and the great statesman will appear, the man who played such a huge role in bringing the Jewish state into being.
The story of how the house came to be built, however, is not nearly as noble as the final result. In a fascinating article by the curator of the house, Merav Segal, one learns of the petty quibbling that went on between the statesman and the architect in a year-long exchange of letters – mainly about the price.
The architect gave an estimate of £20,000, a colossal sum in those days. Weizmann wanted to pay no more than £12,000 and suggested all sorts of ways to cut the cost. Mendelsohn tried to persuade him otherwise.
“The beauty of the building is in its planning, its suitability to the surroundings, climate and your personal and official needs,” he wrote. “The proportions are perfect and not dependent on luxurious fixtures and fittings” – a hint, thinks Segal, of what he anticipated Vera Weizmann was going to bring in.
“You asked for a house of rustic simplicity, without grandiose materials,” continued Mendelsohn. “Your position requires you to have an open attractive home appealing to all levels of society. I can give it to you – but you can’t expect a topnotch house at the lowest price.”
He was ready to draw up new plans at no extra cost, but advised, as a friend, to take the original one. Weizmann refused – he felt it was immoral to spend so much in the Palestine of the mid-’30s.
Compromises were agreed on – they would put wood rather than iron shutters, marble only in the main rooms and cheaper material elsewhere. In a letter Weizmann wrote to a friend, he said, “I am very disappointed in Mendelsohn for wasting a year. He might be a brilliant architect, but he is a very hard man.”
Finally, in August 1935, the argument was resolved (the final cost was just under £15,000) and building began. The Weizmanns moved in a year and a half later. Within a year, he complained: “Every time it rains the staircase is flooded, my room also and the curtains and carpets are damaged. If there’s a strong wind it blows ash from the fireplace and the library is full of dust.”
Plus ça change...
In spite of their disagreements, when Mendelsohn announced he was leaving Israel, Weizmann tried to persuade him to stay – to no avail. He settled in the US, where he died in 1953.
After Vera died, the house was given as a legacy to the state, and Yad Chaim Weizmann was created to commemorate the life and heritage of Weizmann and to maintain the house.
According to Segal, there was little if any awareness of conservation back in the ’70s, and the house fell into disrepair. Things were actually thrown out if they were very damaged or stored away.
“Fortunately not too much damage was done to the house,” says Segal. “And in 2000, we undertook a huge restoration project in which experts in different fields – wood, textiles, painting and so on – were called in to restore everything as far as possible to the original state. We hunted textile designs of the ’50s and had material made from which we could create authentic curtains and upholstery.”
A focal point of the home is the magnificent spiral staircase that leads up to the bedrooms on the second floor. Light pours in from the spine of tall windows around it.
The furnishings were brought from England and France and reflect Vera Weizmann’s taste. Mendelsohn had wanted to design the interior, too, making it modernistic, but Weizmann, a very determined woman (and a doctor) had her own way, and the style is almost entirely European.
The dining room is furnished with a long oak table and matching chairs, which were brought from England when the Weizmann family moved here. It is often set with magnificent Rosenthal porcelain, as it might have been for formal dinners in the early days of the state.
In the lounge, one can see oil paintings, including a portrait of Vera Weizmann and several Maurice Utrillo works. The suite is upholstered in cream brocade, and several priceless objects are displayed, including a 10th-century Tang Dynasty Chinese porcelain horse that, apparently, has been stolen and returned more than once.
The study is as one might expect, lined with bookshelves containing thousands of books, while on the solid oak desk are signed photos of the many famous people whom Chaim Weizmann knew, including Albert Einstein. In this room, as in several others, are photos of the two Weizmann sons – one of whom, Michael, was a pilot in the Royal Air Force and was killed in action in 1942. According to a guide who showed us around the house, Weizmann always carried his son’s last letter to him in his pocket, close to his heart.
Not far from the massive kitchen with its old-fashioned stoves and early refrigerator is a small room designated “the flower room,” its shelves lined with various vases and pots for flower-arranging.
The contrasting bedrooms and sitting rooms of the couple are also lovingly restored. Vera Weizmann’s room has flowery pink chintz covers and curtains. His room is more masculine, and laid out on the bed are his top hat and cane.
The outside of the house is as impressive as the inside, with a pool at the entrance and the tall windows of the turret creating vertical contrast to the dignified, clean lines of the building. At the back, affixed to a top window, is a small tray jutting out from the balcony. It was put there so that Weizmann could feed bread crumbs to the birds – a small fact that nevertheless tells us much about the character of Israel’s first president.
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