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Author plumbs story of architects of a new Jerusalem
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Author plumbs story of architects of a new Jerusalem

Three added to eclectic flavor of Jerusalem’s cultural mix

Author Adina Hoffman said three architects whose designs in the early 20th century left enduring marks on Jerusalem “were in a sense in love with the city,” but in the end were “spat out” by it. Photo by Debra Rubin
Author Adina Hoffman said three architects whose designs in the early 20th century left enduring marks on Jerusalem “were in a sense in love with the city,” but in the end were “spat out” by it. Photo by Debra Rubin

The buildings of Jerusalem, with their diverse mix of ancient and modern architecture and design, reflect the myriad cultures that have colored its history.

Through her book, “Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architects of a New City” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016), Adina Hoffman explores that often-buried history by delving into the work of three architects whose vision helped shaped the fabled city during British colonial rule from 1918 until the establishment of the State of Israel. 

The three architects — a German Jew fleeing the Nazis, a Christian Englishman, and an Arab — designed “spectacular” buildings that added greatly to the city’s cultural profile, said Hoffman during a talk at Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick. The event was held on erev Yom Yerushalayim, this year May 24, marking the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War. She said walking through her adopted city, she gets “this sense of border crossing” and an immersion into the chronicle of the people of diverse ethnicities and religions who have lived there.

Hoffman went back 150 years, noting that 1867 was “a really important year in the history of Jerusalem” because, through construction of the Jaffa Road linking the city to the Port of Jaffa on the Mediterranean coast, it was then opened to development and the larger world. 

An American who has called Jerusalem home since 1992, Hoffman said the city has historically had “a lot of things get put up and taken down and built on,” and lamented that some of the classic designs of the architects she focuses on in her book have been lost to modern Israeli culture. 

One of the first buildings designed by Spyro Houris, the Arab architect of “Till We Have Built Jerusalem,” was demolished during construction of the upscale outdoor Mamilla Mall, built a decade ago just outside the Old City’s Jaffa Gate.

Another of Houris’s buildings, adorned with his signature colorful Armenian tiles, was considered the most elegant building in the city when it was built for a Christian Arab in the 1920s. It still stands, said Hoffman, but passersby are less likely to notice its striking architecture than the falafel stand and nail salon that detract from its beauty, said Hoffman.

Long before the current political climate fractured the relationship between Jerusalem’s Arabs and Jews, Houris was in demand by Jews, Christians, and Muslims to build homes in mixed neighborhoods on Jaffa Street and in the Greek Colony. Despite his popularity, however, he had become somewhat of a mystery, said Hoffman; information on him had been all but erased in Israel, forcing the author to dig for clues about him and his work.

The first mystery was his ethnic and religious identity: Was he Christian or Muslim? He had a Greek first name and in the engraving of his name on the cornerstones of his buildings, he used the French-style dash, causing Hoffman to suspect that French was his first language. 

“It was not easy to find traces of this man,” she said. She did find an ad he placed in a Hebrew newspaper in 1919, “indicating he was looking for Jewish clients.” 

Yet, Hoffman said, she believes it was difficult for Houris to operate as an Arab in Jewish society. Like the other two architects, he was “in a sense in love with the city” but, also like them, was eventually “spat out” by it.

Those architects, Erich Mendelsohn and Austen St. Barbe Harrison, would depart the city in frustration, but not before leaving their mark. Mendelsohn was one of the most successful architects in Weimar Germany; he designed, among other buildings, an observatory for Albert Einstein, a famed theater, and department stores for business magnate and publisher Salman Schocken. 

On a trip to Jerusalem in 1923, Hoffman said, Mendelsohn was immediately drawn to the city, feeling “it was a place he belonged.” But he was also “an incredible egomaniac” waiting for an invitation that never came to be named national architect. After the Nazi rise to power in 1933, he and his wife fled Germany, eventually opening an office in Jerusalem.

He quickly was hired as the architect on numerous buildings: a villa and library for Schocken (who had also fled to Palestine); a house for Zionist leader — and later Israeli president — Chaim Weizmann; the headquarters of the Anglo-Palestine Bank, which at seven stories in 1939 was the tallest building in Jerusalem; and the Hadassah Hospital, which still stands on Mount Scopus, and, said Hoffman, “which you could tell was designed to be in conversation with the Arab villages below.” 

Although an ardent Zionist, Mendelsohn envisioned the city’s future would be built “on a Semitic commonality.”

“He wanted to build a society of Arabs and Jews, which put him at odds with many Jews,” said Hoffman. The Arab uprising that began in 1936 and was mostly directed against the British mandatory authorities often shut down the quarries, cutting off Mendelsohn’s source of building material, while his Jewish socialist and revisionist workers were “literally having fistfights” over the political situation.

Mendelsohn’s plans for The Hebrew University were rejected, and — after the British cut off Jewish immigration in 1939 and rise of violent underground Jewish military groups — he left Jerusalem, feeling “defeated,” Hoffman said, and lived and worked in America from 1941 until his death in 1953. 

Harrison, Palestine’s chief government architect from 1934 to 1937, was described by Hoffman as “a very restrained, retiring man” with a fascination for Islamic and Byzantine architecture. His designs in Jerusalem include the Government Printing Press; the Central Post Office on Jaffa Road; the Government House, the British high commissioner’s residence that is now a United Nations compound; and The Rockefeller Museum, formerly the Palestine Archaeological Museum.

The design of Harrison’s buildings, said Hoffman, are “aspirational,” noting that the Post Office building has a feeling “of weird eccentricity.”

As a public servant, Harrison also had to design more prosaic structures, including latrines, said Hoffman, and he too had difficulty functioning professionally amid the violence of the times.

“He was a pacifist who took the side of neither Jew nor Arab,” said Hoffman. “One day in 1937 he didn’t even bother to sell his furniture; he just left. He would write his sister, ‘I have escaped.’”

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