Resurrecting Sarona

The former Templer colony has been reborn as an entertainment and commercial center.

Shetler's Farm House (photo credit: Courtesy Ganei Sarona)
Shetler's Farm House
(photo credit: Courtesy Ganei Sarona)
Thanks to Tel Aviv’s burgeoning real-estate market, developers have belatedly discovered the city’s Germanic heritage: not the Jews who fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and found a haven to build their Bauhaus apartment buildings, but the Protestant Evangelicals from Württemberg who arrived in 1871 and modernized the Jaffa orange citrus industry.
Ganei Sarona – a mixed commercial, residential complex including 33 original houses of that period, a 4.5- hectare park, a convention center and 10 skyscrapers facing Kaplan Street and the Kirya military headquarters – recently opened for business, even though it will be a decade until the entire project with its adjoining planned light rapid transit station is completed.
The millenarian Templers founded the agricultural settlement of Sarona on 60 hectares (148 acres) of land some four kilometers northeast of Jaffa on the Turkish road leading to Nablus. Overcoming malaria by planting eucalyptus trees from Australia, the colony of Sarona – taking its name from the plains of Sharon – became a model for other German settlements as well as for Jewish pioneers.
By 1898, when Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Palestine, it seemed the Ottoman-ruled country was destined to become a German colony rather than a Jewish state. The German emperor visited the network of Templer colonies – though in fact not all the residents were members of the Tempelgesellschaft, a Lutheran pietist sect that aimed to realize its apocalyptic visions of the prophets of Israel in the Holy Land.
By 1907 the German-speaking settlements had grown to include 2,200 people, including the populations of the German Colony in Haifa, the German Colony in Jerusalem, Bethlehem of Galilee, Wilhelma – now Bnei Atarot – near Lod, and Waldheim – now Alonei Abba in the Lower Galilee.
Due to the vagaries of history, Sarona and its red tile-roof buildings once almost disappeared. Following the British occupation of Palestine in 1917 during World War I, the Sarona Gemeindehaus (community center) was turned into a field hospital and other buildings were commandeered for military use.
Then in 1918, some 850 Templers were deported as enemy nationals to Helwan, Egypt. A further 661 were interned by the British in 1939 and deported to Australia in 1941, during World War II. After serving as a barbed wire-ringed prison camp for Germans for two years, the northern half of Sarona became a British military base. On December 16, 1947, the army camp was the site of the first ever unconcealed attack by the Hagana on a British installation.
Following the British evacuation of Palestine in May 1948, their army camp became the new state’s Defense Ministry – better known today as the Kirya. Over the ensuing decades, most of the Templer buildings in the Kirya were demolished. The remaining properties south of Kaplan Street, which were seized by the Custodian of Enemy Property, fell into ruin. In 1962 the State of Israel compensated the surviving Templers with 54 million deutsche marks for their nationalized property.
Those buildings have been rescued and lovingly restored thanks to a 10- year struggle led by the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites. Under architect Kalman Katz’s original plan, commissioned by the Treasury, Sarona was to be bulldozed to expand Tel Aviv’s central business district. Over the years, Katz revised the South Kirya Project to preserve the historic buildings as part of a green mixed-use campus ringed by tall buildings.
The project is being developed simultaneously by the Ganei Sarona management company, which operates under the aegis of the municipal Ahuzot Hahof corporation, and two groups of entrepreneurs: the Irani- Rogovin partnership and Ganei Sarona Ltd. (which is composed of several private companies and investors).
Of the remaining German settlers’ buildings, 27 have been preserved as shops, restaurants and cafes. The other six have been turned into a visitors center, two museums and a building leased to the Technion for its graduate program in architecture and preservation studies. A number of the buildings were moved to allow for the widening of Kaplan Street and the development of the site. Notable among these are the Gottlieb Glenk Haus, the Christian Kuebler Haus, the Old Winery-Distillery, and Shetler’s Farmhouse.
The revision of the plans for Sarona from a cookie-cutter block of modern office towers to a “lifestyle center” resulted from a public reaction to the surfeit of enclosed shopping malls, says Ran Steinman, one of the Ganei Sarona entrepreneurs. (David Azrieli’s pioneering Ayalon Mall, Israel’s first North American-style mall, opened in Ramat Gan in 1984.Other such pedestrian-friendly lifestyle centers in Israel include Hatahana compound – built around Jaffa’s old train station, the Jaffa Port – the Tel Aviv Port, and Mamilla in Jerusalem.) “The public is tired of malls. It makes no difference if you enter the Seven Stars in Herzliya, the Givatayim mall or a mall in Minnesota; in the final analysis you see exactly the same thing,” says Steinman.
The new lifestyle center is loosely modeled after Los Angeles’s The Grove, which was built on the site of the city’s historic Farmers Market. Though the pseudo-historical architecture there can be considered kitschy, the complex became a commercial success.
“There is one building that is leased to a movie theater, one that belongs to Apple and many good restaurants.
Outside they play a little music – it’s an amazing thing,” says Steinman.
Amit Yulevitz, the CEO of Sarona, thinks that the public is seeking the open air and the experience of wandering around typical of city centers.
“We don’t see ourselves as competing with some mall. Those who want to do traditional shopping in malls will continue to go there, but anyone who wants high-class shopping and a different atmosphere will come to Sarona,” he says “There is symbiosis here between the public space and the private space,” explains Gadi Roitman of the Ganei Sarona management company.
“The buildings cannot work without the park, while the public space cannot work without the buildings.”