Living history

An architect couple brings a crumbling old building in Jerusalem's Mugrabim district back to life.

living room feat 88 298 (photo credit: Eyal Izhar)
living room feat 88 298
(photo credit: Eyal Izhar)
'It has been an honor to be able to deal with such a historic house," says Netanel Mayer, a partner in the firm of Na-Ma Architects, who, with his architect wife Michal, bought the crumbling old building in Jerusalem's Mugrabim district and turned it into this very desirable residence. The neighborhood, which is situated two blocks from the King David Hotel, was the second to be built outside the Old City walls, after Mishkenot Sha'ananim, and was completed around 1868. The original inhabitants were Jews, many of whom had fled from Safed after the big earthquake there, Christians and Muslims, and often they all lived together in the same house, each family occupying a separate room. "That is one of the reasons the rooms are so large," explains Mayer. After he had worked for several years in restoration, he could see the potential of the house the minute he and his wife went to look at it. "There was an old lady living here who had been here for 60 years," he recalls, "and of course it was in a dreadful state." The first thing to do was to remove 60 years' layers of paint to reveal the beauty of the stone beneath, and the first thing that strikes the visitor on entering the roomy apartment are the walls, which give you the feeling you are sitting in a miniature castle. On a cold Jerusalem winter day, the house is warm and welcoming, in spite of the stone walls, thanks to the efforts the designers put into the interior d cor, with plenty of natural wood in a comforting honey shade and under-floor heating everywhere. The lounge, where we sit to talk about the house, was once, in a former incarnation, the courtyard around which three large rooms were home to the families of the three religions. When the architects acquired it, the area was a kitchen, but they quickly saw the advantage of making it the center of the home and moved the kitchen, which can be glimpsed through open windows, to the side. Looking up to the skylight, which is a large window overhead, one can see the apartment upstairs and the decorative walls on either side of the window, which are still discernible as original pillars from the mid-19th century. "We put in the window to replace an asbestos roof, which is now reckoned to be a dangerous material," explains Mayer. "It allows light to flood into our living space and we also have this incredible view overhead." At night they can close off the overhead window with a remote control that slides a blind across the glass. The small entrance uses all the space to good advantage, with a cloakroom to the right and a closet for coats, which also doubles as a room divider to the kitchen. Above the entrance door, the walls have been reinforced with an iron bar, which has a certain aesthetic quality and also serves to remind one that the house is very old. Besides being a monument to the past, the house is actually very livable. The modern kitchen is off-white with a butcher-block eating bar against the wall and revolving chairs in a pale green. The lounge has a gray sofa facing a massive plasma screen set into the same shade of wooden wall as the dining table and the floor panels and a vivid red tub chair. "We didn't want to take the wooden panels right up to the walls, as there would have been a problem of the finish on the stone," says Mayer. "So we decided to set the wood into marble surrounds and it works very well." A bright chrome lamp looms over the whole scene and spot lighting is distributed around both ceiling and floor. All the other rooms have the same arched windows, and in the master bedroom the en-suite bathroom has a free-standing bath set into the niche of the very thick walls, as well as a sink also set into an original arched niche. From the bedroom, they can walk out into the small garden, which is also a conserved area. "We were lucky to have the chance to bring this home back to what it once was," says Mayer. "There are very few houses in Jerusalem left that one can do this with." Do you feel you own one of Israel's most beautiful homes? Please e-mail: [email protected]