Old New England in Tel Aviv

Two cross streets, Auerbach and Beer Hoffmann, bear witness to American history dating back to 1866.

Jerusalem Hotel 521 (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Jerusalem Hotel 521
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
When my husband suggested we take a walk in an area between Jaffa and South Tel Aviv’s Florentin neighborhood, I agreed with alacrity. After all, not only is he a tour guide, he was born and bred in southern Tel Aviv. And he always comes up with a site, street or neighborhood off the beaten track.
This time, however, I had to rub my eyes to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, because he had led me to a cluster of buildings that looked as if they had come straight out of the northeastern US. Turns out they were part of a little colony founded by Christian Lovers of Zion – long before Theodor Herzl convened the very first Zionist Congress.
It all began on August 11, 1866, when 157 people – including 48 children under the age of 12 – set sail for the Land of Israel on the three-masted Nellie Chapin. Their mission: to develop the land and its resources in preparation for the return of the Jewish people. Armed with modern agricultural equipment, prefabricated wooden houses, and a fervent desire to succeed, they disembarked in Jaffa on September 22.
Unfortunately their leader, George Adams, had not yet purchased the property on which they had been planning to settle. Even worse, perhaps, the site on which they pitched temporary tents on the beach was near a cemetery that held victims of the dreaded cholera. Within a couple of months, nine children were dead of infections and disease.
As soon as the land was theirs, the settlers began assembling New Englandstyle homes in what would be the first neighborhood outside the walled city of Jaffa. But their troubles had only begun. As many a European pioneer was to learn later, farming in the Land of Israel was nothing like farming in their native countries. Although they asked for reinforcements and other assistance from officials in Maine, nothing was forthcoming.
More problems were in store. They couldn’t harvest enough food to keep from starving, a frustrated Adams began drinking, internal disputes were rampant, and mortality rates were unbearably high. Two years after their arrival in Jaffa, all but two dozen or so members of the American Colony in Jaffa had gone back to the New World.
In 1942, historian Reed Holmes met an elderly woman who had been 13 when the Nellie Chapin entered Jaffa Port. Waxing nostalgic, she told him she had ridden horseback with her friends to the White Tower in Ramle and climbed the top for a view of her home in the American Colony. Holmes’s imagination was fired, and after decades of extensive research, he published The Forerunners in 1982.
Around the same time, Holmes organized a tour of Israel. Among the participants was one Jean Carter, a licensed construction supervisor from Massachusetts.
Holmes took his group to the American Colony, where Carter was aghast to learn that the houses – which were in terrible shape – were slated for demolition. She immediately determined to do whatever she could to save these unusual remnants of early settlement in the Holy Land.
Carter was raised in a small Christian church, had a master’s degree in Jewish studies and studied Hebrew in Israel. Somehow she persuaded the government to declare the colony a site to be preserved, and received a promise that any house that could be saved would not be torn down. She even got the Tel Aviv Municipality to place a memorial plaque on the beach where the American Colony had landed long ago.
Holmes and Carter eventually married. In 2002, they purchased one of the dilapidated American Colony homes that the city had planned to destroy. Today known as the Maine Friendship House, it holds a delightful museum about the American Colony.
What’s left of the colony today can be found along two cross streets: Auerbach and Beer Hoffmann. Besides the restored American Colony houses, there are other buildings to explore as well, since the Americans who left were replaced by 19th-century German Templers – Christians intent on preparing the country for the Second Coming.
A fabulous villa constructed by one Baron Plato von Ustinov has become a far simpler guest house. And across the street stands a church that was completed long after almost every former American had left.
Begin with the museum, at 10 Auerbach Street. The original wooden and clapboard house was so covered over with German additions that it was almost impossible to find the American dwelling underneath, and a stone addition 24 years after its construction doubled its size. As a result, after they purchased the structure, it took the Holmeses two years to recreate it, with the help of specialists in 19th-century building restoration and preservation techniques from Maine. The result, says Jean, is a perfect restoration of the house constructed there 147 years ago.
During the preservation and restoration process, Reed discovered a beam inscribed with the initials of the original owners. It turns out that they were Wentworths from Maine – and distant cousins of his. The house had been prefabricated at a sawmill in Whitneyville, Maine, transported seven miles by rail to the port at Machias, and joined 20 other prefabs on the Nellie Chapin.
A visit to the museum offers a fascinating look into the American farming past. You begin with a movie about the American Colony, then tour the house, which is chock full of period items, from a sewing machine and a camera to a tea set and pitchfork.
Cross Beer Hoffmann Street to 8 Auerbach. The house that stood there was sold to the Templers in 1871 and became their national headquarters.
Two wings were added to the building, which contained, besides Templer offices, a school and community hall.
After they moved their headquarters to Jerusalem, they sold the building to Ustinov, a colorful young Russian.
He arrived with his young wife Maria, daughter of Peter Metzler, a German who had bought a number of the American Colony buildings.
Ustinov (grandfather of actor Peter Ustinov) added one story and made numerous architectural changes that transformed the building into a kind of palace. One of the early alumni from the Mikve Israel Agricultural School, Nissim Elhadif, was hired to develop a botanical garden for the hotel. That’s why the garden, now far smaller than it was originally, contains a Bengali ficus – it came here from Mikve, where the first such tree was planted. The former American Colony structure opened as the luxurious Hotel du Park.
Among the famous people to lodge at the Hotel du Park where German Emperor Wilhelm II and his wife Augusta Victoria, who stayed in Jaffa overnight on October 27, 1898. Clients of the famous Thomas Cook travel agency, they were settled here because it was the only hotel in Jaffa that was considered suitable (his entourage stayed in the Jerusalem Hotel next door). Backers of the new German church that was to be built down the street had hoped that Wilhelm would be around for the dedication, but that was delayed because of a property dispute with the ruling Turks.
Sometime after Ustinov’s death, the hotel was sold to the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews (today known as the CMJ, or Christian Mission to the Jews), which opened a girls’ high school. Eventually, in the 1970s, Beit Immanuel became a meeting place for Hebrew-speaking Messianic Jews. Today it functions mainly as a guest house.
Two brothers from the American Colony built the gorgeous structure next door at No. 6, known as the Grand Hotel.
After most of the Americans left, it was bought by Ernest Hardegg, whose father was one of two leaders of the Templer group that settled Haifa’s German Colony in 1868.
Hardegg remodeled the building, turning it into a splendid guest house called the Jerusalem Hotel. He was so well-respected that, despite his nationality, he was appointed United States consular agent in Haifa and served in that position from 1871 to 1909.
Young people in the American Colony had plenty of fun, especially during festivities at the home of Ackley Norton.
A ship’s captain, he had five children, and as his status as captain required, he owned a large and comfortable home.
Located at 4 Auerbach Street, it boasted a wall that opened like an accordion, where Norton hosted festive gatherings.
One young man wrote in his diary that they partied “until the fiddle’s strings broke!” Jean (then Carter) saved the house just before it was bulldozed to the ground, and it was the first to be restored, maintaining the authentic look of a New England captain’s abode.
Several children whose parents remained here married within the colony. Mary Jane Clark was seven when she landed in Jaffa. She married a childhood sweetheart from the colony, and after he died, wed a man named Rolla Floyd.
Floyd’s family had lost a child almost immediately after their arrival. A born entrepreneur, he brought a carriage from Maine. When a road was built from Jaffa to Jerusalem in 1869, he and his wife inaugurated the road with the first carriage to travel the distance. Floyd established a carriage service between the two cities and founded one of the most successful travel agencies in the Middle East.
Begin walking back to Beit Immanuel, and stop to view the white structure across from No. 6 that housed Floyd’s travel agency. Then turn the corner next to Beit Immanuel and walk down Beer Hoffmann Street.
Towering above the other buildings, the Immanuel Church at No. 15 was never a part of the American Colony, and its cornerstone was laid only in 1898. When completed six years later, it was called the German Evangelical Church, and served both German Templers and the Evangelical Christians who lived in the neighborhood.
Since 1955, it has belonged to the Norwegian Lutheran Church and was renamed Immanuel. Beautifully renovated, with an organ from Gottingen, Germany, the church today serves a variety of Christian denominations.
Just past the church, the wooden structure at No. 17 has been nicely restored. So has the house across the road at No. 16, where the Floyd family made its home. Both look very New England-esque – and very strange, here in Jaffa.
Like the German Colony in Haifa and the one in Jerusalem, here, too, the neighborhood thrived. And like their counterparts all over the country – many of whom had become Nazi sympathizers – the Germans in Jaffa were expelled by the British during World War II. The houses began to deteriorate, but fortunately several were saved and restored. And the story, known to very few, is worth hearing.
Maine House is open Friday 12 noon to 3 p.m. and Saturday 2 to 4 p.m. Phone: (03) 681-9225. No fee, donations welcome.Immanuel Church is open to visitors Tuesday through Friday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.