From schoolhouse to museum

The Haifa City Museum’s new wing, a renovated Templer schoolhouse, opened to the public for the first time this month.

Haifa City Museum 520 (photo credit: Courtesy Haifa City Museum)
Haifa City Museum 520
(photo credit: Courtesy Haifa City Museum)
At a recent opening ceremony for its latest exhibition, “War of the Languages: Founding of the Technion/Technikum,” the Haifa City Museum also celebrated the inauguration of its new wing, a historic Templer schoolhouse building in the city’s German Colony.
The renovated schoolhouse is tucked behind the museum’s main wing on Sderot Ben-Gurion, a wide, treelined boulevard stretching from the sea to the foot of Mount Carmel.
Both the museum’s buildings were constructed by German Templers and are of great historical significance, says Svetlana Reingold, curator of “War of the Languages.”
“What is now the museum’s main wing was the first ever building the Templers built in Palestine,” she explains.
“They built it in 1869, and it served as the German colony’s community center.”
Founded in 1861 by Christoph Hoffmann and Georg David Hardegg, the Templers were a Protestant messianic sect.
At the core of their belief lay the idea that the Second Coming of Jesus would be expedited if they settled and developed the Holy Land.
In 1868, Hoffmann and Hardegg led a group of 72 Templers from Germany to what was then Ottoman Palestine. They purchased land in Haifa, at the foot of Mount Carmel, and established a small colony.
As they waited for the Second Coming, the Templers set about making significant and innovative contributions to Haifa’s infrastructure.
Their legacy includes roads, stone houses, a bank, stores and a cement factory that used the latest German technology to produce modern building materials.
“In some ways, it’s even possible to see some basic parallels with the Zionist movement,” says Reingold.
“The Templers also believed they should move to Eretz Yisrael and modernize it.”
The Templer community center in Haifa formed the heart of the small but wellordered German colony. And as the community grew, so did the building.
According to Reingold, the Templers originally constructed a single-story stone building, but in later years an additional floor was added.
“The main room on the ground floor was used as an assembly hall, where the Templers held community gatherings and prayer meetings,” says Reingold. “They built the upper floor as a schoolroom, but it became too small.
“In 1902, the Templers constructed another building just behind the community center, and that was used as a dedicated schoolhouse.”
Despite initial setbacks, including disease and difficulties in adjusting to the climate, the German Templers flourished in Eretz Yisrael.
They expanded into other colonies – Walhalla in Jaffa, the German Colony in Jerusalem, Sarona (now Hakirya in Tel Aviv), Wilhelma (now Bnei Atarot) and at Beit Lehem in Galilee.
However, the Templer colonists never abandoned their sense of patriotism or loyalty to their homeland.
As Hitler rose to power in the 1930s, many of the Templers in Eretz Yisrael sympathized with the strong German nationalism espoused by the Nazi party. Some even joined up, and Nazi flags were flown in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
“With the outbreak of World War II, the British authorities in Palestine expelled the Templers,” says Reingold. “They were eventually exiled to Australia, where their descendants still live.”
When the State of Israel was established in 1948, most of the Templer buildings in Haifa and in the other German colonies around the country fell into decay.
In recent years, property developers have realized the market potential of these historic buildings, and many are being restored and turned into private residences.
In Tel Aviv, for example, the Jaffa and Sarona colonies have been turned into luxury apartments. Another Templer building in south Tel Aviv’s Walhalla colony is being restored by the Schechter Center for Jewish Culture as a Masorti community center.
IN HAIFA, the municipality decided to restore two of the city’s most important Templer buildings – the community center and schoolhouse – not for private homes, but as a museum that would benefit the wider public.
The Haifa City Museum was inaugurated in the former Templer community center in 2000.
“The renovations were carried out in two stages,” says Nissim Tal, director-general of Haifa’s museums.
“The first stage was the restoration of the Templer community center and the exterior of the schoolhouse.
We received a donation from Germany of about NIS 5 million for that.”
Renovations of the exterior of the Templer schoolhouse were completed in 2007, but budgetary constraints meant that the work was completed only this year.
The new wing’s grand opening this month was a major milestone for the museum and for Haifa’s ongoing project to develop itself as a national and regional cultural center.
“We got funding from the Culture Ministry, the Haifa Municipality and private donations to renovate the ground floor of the schoolhouse to create an exhibition space and offices,” adds Tal.
Reingold says it is no accident that “War of the Languages” was selected as the new wing’s inaugural exhibition.
“We specifically chose this particular exhibition as the first to be held in the newly renovated building,” she explains.
“The founding of the Technion and the “war of the languages” are extremely significant events in Haifa’s history, and this Templer building is also an important part of the city’s past.”
According to Nissim Tal, the Haifa City Museum is now seeking funding for additional renovations to the upper story of the schoolhouse.
“We want to create a permanent exhibition and a learning space on the upper floor as a facility where students, Israeli tourists and foreign visitors can learn about the city of Haifa and its history,” he adds.