Architect Amnon Rechter likes to say it was the groundbreaking design for the Mivtachim Sanatorium — the geometric-shaped Zichron Yaakov hotel for which his father, Yaakov Rechter, won the 1973 Israel Prize for Architecture — that convinced him to follow in his father’s footsteps.
Rechter, now 58, remembers at age 11 going with his father to visit the construction site, where he first saw the building’s massive concrete pillars soaring up the hill.
“I called them the horses, because they looked like a herd of wild horses galloping up the hill,” he said. “They’re one of the reasons I became an architect. It told a story, it showed the power of great art.”
Those exposed concrete walls are still there, geometric supports that form the base of the low, white building, now softened by green grasses and manicured lawns overlooking the sea.
Today, the landmarked building is being used once again as a hotel, more than 40 years after it first opened. Now called the Elma Arts Complex Luxury Hotel, it’s housed in the award-winning structure that was refitted by architects Amnon Rechter and Ranni Ziss to suit the needs of guests in this era.
A tale of art and architecture
The refurbishing of this landmarked building is a tale of art and architecture, and of the generations that ensured it would be protected and used appropriately.
When the structure was first built in the 1960s, it was one of four set up by Mivtachim, a pension fund company, as a bucolic getaway for Israeli workers, as part of their annual salary package.
All four locations were focused on arts and culture, offering activities that included chess and lectures, live classical music and film screenings. The guest rooms were small, there was no air conditioning and no pool on site.
“We were a social welfare state back then,” said Rechter. “It was like a spartan convent in a way, but very Zen-like.”
It was also a hotel that was typical of the time, when the country harkened more to European traditions and standards than to American largesse and luxurious facilities.
The architectural design, however, was a crowning pinnacle for Mivtachim, who hired Yaakov Rechter, already a renowned architect who had designed museums, theaters and hotels, to create an outstanding structure.
The sanatorium was designed with clean, white lines that embodied the very essence of 1960s Israeli design, following the architectural style that Zeev Rechter, Yaakov Rechter’s father, used in some of his most iconic buildings.
The form of the two-story structure was wavelike, following the curve of the mountain on which the hotel sits, appearing to float above the hill.
“They were willing to go with something that pushed the envelope,” said Amnon Rechter of the original owners.
By the time the sanatorium was completed in 1968, pointed out Rechter, Israel had won the 1967 Six Day War and become a Middle Eastern superpower, a country that was far more Americanized in its cultural attitudes. Capitalism reigned, he said, and Israelis were less interested in basic hotels that lacked pools and air conditioning.
Mivtachim remained open for another 30 years, but quickly became a throwback to an earlier time, as Israelis flocked to flashy hotels in Eilat and Tiberias, where Olympic-sized pools reigned, alongside all-you-can-eat buffets.
At one point in the 1980s, the sanatorium changed ownership and became the Carmel Gardens, with a “cheesy” interior design, said Rechter.
The hotel finally closed its doors in the late 1990s, until art benefactress Lily Elstein was convinced in 2000 to revive the space, before it was purchased by local real estate developers.
Elstein’s extended family had lived in Zichron Yaakov, and she was married to Moshe Elstein, whose father was a founder of the pharmaceutical company that eventually became global giant Teva Pharmaceuticals.
“She called me the minute she decided to buy it,” said Rechter. “She lived in a project I had designed in Tel Aviv, and looks out at the Cameri Theater, which I also designed.”
There was some concern that Rechter would be dogmatic about the origins of the building because of his views about conservation, but he “wanted to make this building work,” he said.
“This building is a masterpiece, and one of the great ones in Israel,” he said. “It’s a work of genius, with a microclimate that works against the hill, but is also part of it.”
Rechter collaborated with Ziss, whose area of expertise is hotels, while Rechter is considered one of Israel’s experts on concert halls. The two used the original architectural plans in analyzing their renovation, and ended up amalgamating the new and old, said Rechter.
They created a hotel of just 39 rooms, combining each set of two original rooms into mini suites, and added several new rooms in a separate area of villas outside the original hotel building. They also added a pool and spa, and augmented the concert halls and outdoor spaces.
Israeli musicians perform most nights of the week in Elma Hall, a 450-seat concert hall that was created by digging below ground to create a larger, acoustically customized space, and The Cube, the smaller, more intimate space.
The purpose of the hotel is its celebration of the arts, with Elstein’s massive collection of artworks on the walls of the hotel.
And there’s the building itself, a renovated homage to Rechter’s father’s work, being used for the purpose for which it was first created, albeit with more creature comforts for hotel guests who have come to expect that kind of treatment.
“The whole hotel is one gallery, but the raison d’etre is the building itself,” said Rechter. “Sometimes I’m very attached to it and I see it as my project, but there’s also an element of time travel because it’s so familiar to anyone who ever visited here.”