Discovering Israel's Not-So-Old History

A Second Look at Forgotten Colonial-Era Architecture

Amenable Almshouse: Montefiore’s Almshouse is a good example of colonial-era architecture, which is often overlooked among Israel’s cultural treasures.
almog/wikicommons
Amenable Almshouse: Montefiore’s Almshouse is a good example of colonial-era architecture, which is often overlooked among Israel’s cultural treasures.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published December 13, 2011, issue of December 16, 2011.
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For nearly 50 years, from its debut in 1892 until 1948, the Jaffa terminus, at the other end of the line, was the centerpiece of international trade, its campus of customhouses filled to the rafters with all manner of goods. But then it languished for nearly as long, the victim of an altered landscape and newer modes of transportation. In 2010, the facility, renamed HaTachana, the Station, reopened as a public space of shops, eateries and cultural outlets. Think of it as the equivalent of New York City’s South Street Seaport or Boston’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace, only better and livelier.

When I visited in November, HaTachana was host to a series of fashion events. Amid the restored stone buildings and remnants of railroad track dating back 100-plus years, a huge outdoor video screen projected oversized images of a runway on which models paraded the latest sartorial trends. Incongruity and wonder: boon companions, once again.

Coming full circle, I stayed at a beautifully appointed hotel in Tel Aviv that also bore the name of Montefiore. Like the revitalized Mishkenot Sha’ananim, it grew out of a brand-new way of thinking, a reassessment of the city’s patrimony. Not too far from Sderot Rothschild, the expansive, tree-lined boulevard in the heart of Tel Aviv where last summer’s protests took place, this establishment is housed in an elaborately styled building whose rounded turrets and fanciful iron balconies conjure up visions of an orientalized Paris.

When first built in the early 1920s, 36 Montefiore Street was probably the dernier cri in architectural stylishness. But over the years, as modernism took hold of the Tel Aviv street, it stuck out like a sore thumb. Soon enough, the building and others like it came to be shunned as unwanted and unwelcome reminders of the old-fashioned and the diasporic.

But happily, that’s no longer the case. A new generation of Israelis now recognizes, makes use of and even celebrates the built environment it has inherited. Rescuing almshouses, railroad stations and urban apartment buildings from the dustbin of history, these Israelis have given them — and us — a second chance.


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