Voices from the past

From an old movie house to a boutique hotel, the Cinema Hotel in Tel Aviv is a relic of a bygone era.

Cinema Hotel in Tel Aviv. (photo credit: URIEL MESSA)
Cinema Hotel in Tel Aviv.
(photo credit: URIEL MESSA)
What do you do when you inherit a cinema? Such was the problem that faced Dani Goldsmith when the Esther Cinema in Tel Aviv became obsolete in 1992.
“It functioned as a movie-house until then, but it was clear that cinemas, as such, were passé and we would have to do something else with it,” the 55-year-old historian says. The building was designated as a conserved structure, so even if the family had wanted to knock it down and build apartments, they couldn’t. Today, overlooking Dizengoff square in the heart of the city, it was renovated as the Cinema Hotel, a member of the Atlas Boutique Hotel group.
The family had built the cinema in 1938 and named it after grandmother Esther, it was as much a family heirloom as an anonymous Tel Aviv building.
The grandparents had emigrated from Aden and had decided that managing a cinema would be a good line of business in those days. They commissioned Yehuda Magidovitch to design and construct the building. He was the Tel Aviv city engineer and the top architect of his day, according to Goldsmith.
He left a legacy of hundreds of his buildings in the White City including the Great Synagogue on Allenby Street, built in 1925. building conforms to the reigning Bauhaus style of the time, clean simple lines and unadorned facades. But according to Goldsmith, Magidovitch was a painter and he couldn’t give up on the decorative elements of the eclectic style in which he was raised. So he put them on the inside of the building. The original wrought-iron staircase is evidence of his nostalgic leanings to decoration.
As the family architect, he was also asked to construct a synagogue for the Aden community which is similarly built with a Bauhaus style exterior and more ornamental interior.
It stands on Lilienblum Street and is home to a collection of artifacts belonging to the Aden community and tells the story of their heritage.
So how do you turn a cinema into a hotel? The first step was to take a modern architect; the family chose Ariel Dwilanski, who specializes in hotel design.
The façade was repaired and painted and the original front door was restored using Magidovitch’s plans. Inside, the wooden seats – 1,000 of them – were removed and four were retained to be placed in the lobby as a historical reminder of the hard wooden seats Israeli movie- goers sat on for decades.
“The whole lobby also serves a second function as a museum,” says Goldsmith.
Projectors, cameras and many other common artifacts of the old cinema are now on display in the upper lobby. Old movie posters also play an important role in the décor.
The original marble staircase remains although the marble has been worn almost smooth thanks to the thousands of people who used it over the years. Also preserved are the 1930s era brass chandelier and matching wall lights. The lobby floor was re-tiled, but also in the Art Deco spirit of the period when the building went up.
Even the new tables and chairs in the lobby have been upholstered in a geometric pattern, using the same color scheme as in the bedrooms, to blend in with the epoch.
To turn it into a boutique hotel – probably one of the first to be built in Israel – 82 rooms were constructed on five floors. The Atlas chain runs the hotel and the place offers bed and breakfast, marvelous views of downtown Tel Aviv and Dizengoff square, and a tangible history of a not-so-distant past. The renovation was completed in 2001.
It may be an old building but the visitors’ comfort is the first priority. The rooms are decorated in subtle shades of gray, black and purple, and if you want to splash out on a two-room suite, a pin-up of 1940s Hollywood darling Ava Gardner is on display at the end of the bed. All the rooms have black-and-white portraits of old movie-stars. Goldsmith emphasizes that the décor is a conscious attempt to echo that of the ’30s, including that of the en-suite bathrooms which are all decorated in black and white with diamond- pattern floor tiles.
In every room an old camera or projector has been placed to emphasize the theme of the hotel.
But where does one find 82 old movie cameras? That was a question Goldsmith had no problem answering.
“I’m a collector,” he says, so many were already in his possession. For the rest, he scoured flea markets around Europe eventually finding enough to stock all the rooms.
The hotel also offers conference rooms with the walls covered in photos of old Tel Aviv.
According to Goldsmith, the Tel Aviv Municipality gets a good pass mark for its awareness of the need to preserve historic buildings like this one. But he feels it could do even more.
“We have to preserve the past so that future generations are able to not just read about it and see films about it, but see it for themselves.”