Hotels look to the past for a new take on luxury

Two hotels still under construction, the W Tel Aviv-Jaffa and Isrotel’s Jerusalem Residence, make use of historical buildings as part of their accommodations

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

The exterior of the extensively renovated and restored W Tel Aviv-Jaffa (Courtesy of W Tel Aviv-Jaffa)
The exterior of the extensively renovated and restored W Tel Aviv-Jaffa (Courtesy of W Tel Aviv-Jaffa)

JAFFA — With vaulted ceilings and delicately restored stained glass windows, you wouldn’t know the future bar of the W Tel Aviv-Jaffa hotel was once the chapel of this former 19th century French hospital. Ditto for the sturdy, Jerusalem stone-walled Templar classrooms now remodeled as luxe hotel rooms for Isrotel’s new Jerusalem Residence complex in Jerusalem’s German Colony.

It’s those kind of historic, treasured interiors — and exteriors — that can often enhance new construction in a luxury hotel project. For the developers and architects, however, the challenge and satisfaction comes from taking something historical and putting it back together for contemporary use.

“It’ll be a lot of fun drinking wine inside of a room that was once a church,” said Yotam Carmel, a partner in Arco Planning, Preservation and Restoration Ltd., the firm heading the W hotel’s lengthy restoration process. “You’re enjoying the original structure, not hiding the aging and it’s a concept that brings that back to life. It’s always a compromise and it’s a good one here.”

The restoration of the chapel, a vaulted-ceilinged room of the hospital, was one of many changes made by the W Tel Aviv-Jaffa, in a multi-million project begun eight years ago. That was when RFR Holding LLC, a real estate investment firm, bought the 18th century French hospital built by a French philanthropist, with the intention of turning it into a W hotel.


It was an unusual purchase, given that W hotels are not usually housed in complicated preservation projects. RFR contracted with Starwood Hotels and Resorts, which owns the W brand, to manage the hotel under its W brand.

The stained glass windows and thickly painted walls of the former hospital, before restoration (Courtesy Amit Geron)
The stained glass windows and thickly painted walls of the former hospital, before restoration (Courtesy Amit Geron)

It was the hotel’s architect, Ramy Gill, who also designed the Jaffa port, the ancient stretch of waterfront that has become a popular boardwalk of restaurants and galleries, who had his eye on the hospital.

Situated at a corner of Old Jaffa, the quaint, restored neighborhood that functions as a preserved tourist section, Gill knew the hospital offered a significant piece of local history and, a great location in the city’s gentrifying, southern neighborhood.

There were other draws as well; the hospital’s intact Carrera marble stairs, original balustrades and stained glass windows. Yet even Gill had no idea that the upper floors covered 13th century Crusader retaining walls and a stretch of ancient arches in the lower basement.

The hospital had been built in 1879 by a French philanthropist, and later inherited by the nuns who were living there for decades, caring for the sick. The nuns later sold it to the city of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, with the expectation that it would be used for a tourism project.

When RFR bought it in 2007, they first spent three seasons with the Israeli Antiquities Authority, said Michal Shavit, a representative of RFR Holding LLC, the real estate investment firm launching the W Tel Aviv–Jaffa, a must when excavating ancient construction.

They ended up finding first century, Roman period and then 13th century Crusader-era findings under the still-intact building.

The upper windows and tremendously high, vaulted ceilings of the chapel (Courtesy Eldad Rafaeli)
The upper windows and tremendously high, vaulted ceilings of the chapel (Courtesy of Eldad Rafaeli)

What they found, said Gill, was amazing in its geometry, quality and relative completeness. He had expected to find a major foundation under the building, but ended up discovering three lower basement areas connected by major pillars and arches.

“We realized that it was covering a lot of space, and that we could use the square footage to our advantage,” he said.

The extent of the project “is highly unusual for a W,” allowed Gill. “The management had a hard time understanding how to go about it. But as soon as they landed, they realized how unique it is and got that the ‘W’ness will be created by what we have here, by giving guests an experience of local quality and nature.”

Still, those kinds of finds can put a slight wrench into certain construction problems, said Shavit.

“We had to change some plans because of the antiquities,” she said. “That’s life in Israel.”

Hotels and their histories

There haven’t been as many historic surprises for Isrotel, the local hotel company that planned its entrance into Jerusalem with a hotel and attached residence situated at the tip of Jerusalem’s German Colony. It wanted to connect to the neighborhood, notable for its collection of 19th century Templar buildings, built by the German pilgrims who settled in several cities, aiming to bring Christianity to the locals.

After establishing colonies in Haifa and Jaffa, members of the Templar sect came to Jerusalem in 1873, buying a tract of land in the Refaim Valley — hence the main street of the German Colony, Emek Refaim, or Valley of the Spirits — from the Arab community in nearby Beit Safafa. They built traditional farmhouses and community buildings with slanting, tiled roofs and shuttered windows, but made of Jerusalem stone instead of the usual wood and bricks.

An image from 1882 of the Templar buildings constructed by the German Christians who settled Jerusalem's German Colony (Courtesy David Kroyanker, 'The German Colony and Emek Refaim Street' Keter and the Jerusalem Institute)
An image from 1882 of the Templar buildings constructed by the German Christians who settled Jerusalem’s German Colony (Courtesy of David Kroyanker, ‘The German Colony and Emek Refaim Street’ Keter and the Jerusalem Institute)

The Templar complex that forms the historical center of the hotel served as a culture and educational center for the German pioneering community. Now it will be used as hotel rooms, with the exterior carefully preserved, down to the windows and original wooden shutters, as well as certain interior details, such as the typically Persian tiled floors of the period, vaulted ceilings and interior arches.

The planned Istrotel complex, which was battled by local residents for many years, will end up being an 11-floor, 240-room structure (two floors are below ground) with two residences of 11 private apartments serviced by the hotel. Most of the buyers are from the US, Europe and United Kingdom, said Jonathan Shebson, a local realtor handling the marketing of the residences.

The hotel’s plan was to benefit from the historic buildings, and create a structure that wouldn’t overtake the neighborhood, said Shebson. They aimed for a hotel building that doesn’t tower over the nearby, red-roofed houses, adding two floors below ground, but with access to an open-air courtyard that accesses Emek Refaim Street, the main road in the neighborhood with its collection of Templar-era houses.

“There was a need to make adjustments between the historical buildings and the modern needs,” said Eyal Ziv, the architect handling the preservation details of the project.

A rendered image of the planned Isrotel Jerusalem Residence, facing Emek Refaim Street in the German Colony (Courtesy Isrotel)
A rendered image of the planned Isrotel Jerusalem Residence, facing Emek Refaim Street in the German Colony (Courtesy of Isrotel)

They had to be meticulous in their preservation of the original facades, he said, restoring them to their authentic look. The interior changes included a redivision of the rooms, the addition of electricity, plumbing and elevators as well as acoustic solutions, said Ziv.

Preserving historic buildings while making them usable in modern times is a process that’s taken place at several new hotels in Israel, including Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria, which used the one-time Palace Hotel, built by an Arab sheik in the 1920s, as the focal point of its reported $150 million renovation. The Waldorf also added residential buildings, and was a three-year project that required extensive work to restore the building’s blend of Roman, Moorish and Arab architecture.

With painted ceilings and marble floors, it offers access to a rich man’s house from the high season of the Ottomans, said Carmel, whose firm also handled the smaller hotel restoration. “It’s a palace, really.”

The combination of the Crusader-era wine cellar, high ceilings and an original Turkish hammam in Efendi showed how to make the two periods live together. Now there will be the third, more contemporary current era edging into the space, noted Carmel.

It’s a similar quandary at the W Tel Aviv-Jaffa, where guests will dine underneath Crusader-era arches, while eating off ultra-modern china and sitting in contemporary furnishings designed by celebrity architect John Pawson. Ditto for the Isrotel Jerusalem, where high ceilings and arched windows will vie with the plush, modern interiors favored by the hotel designers.

The planned lobby of the W Tel Aviv-Jaffa, where contemporary design will blend with 13th and 18th century finds (Courtesy W Tel Aviv-Jaffa)
The planned lobby of the W Tel Aviv-Jaffa, where contemporary design will blend with 13th- and 18th-century finds. (Courtesy of W Tel Aviv-Jaffa)

“You can’t superimpose or force one on the other,” said Gill, referring to the various architectural periods sharing space. “But you also won’t embellish either one or create some kind of sweet or fake story that forces it all to work together.”

Restored to its former glory

Hotel groups also have the necessary budgets for this kind of restoration project, said Carmel, referring to the W Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

“If you don’t treat the building right, it’s never going to be a successful project,” said Carmel. “A building of this scale will not tolerate modern engineering or modern materials, it will just refuse them with time. It’s a delicate junction, but this is where you need professional teams to do the work.”

Given that the French hospital was built in European style, “it’s as if it landed from the sky,” said Carmel. The architecture, masonry, proportions, engineering and materials, were mostly imported from France and Italy.

One of the restored hospital columns in the renovated W hotel (Courtesy Amit Geron)
One of the restored hospital columns in the renovated W hotel (Courtesy of Amit Geron)

Staircases were made of marble with Latin carvings. The stair railing was made in Paris and the vitrage windows were probably made in Lyons. The terracotta tiles came from Marseille and glazed porcelain tiles were from Italy, all above archaeological remains from the Crusaders through the Ottoman period.

“It’s not a typical building for the area or the period,” he said.

In fact, normally a museum or national park would take over this kind of finding.

But, pointed out Carmel, restoration is very expensive, particularly when handling pieces hand-carved 130 years ago.

“There’s no mechanical way to do that,” he said. “I have my own collection of very good craftsmen, a metal worker who studied in England and stone carvers who studied in Germany, France and Italy.”

The 127-room W hotel, which will be completed in 2016, also boasts 35 private, ultra modern residences designed by John Pawson. Part of the hotel’s lower basement is being turned into Israel’s first automated elevator parking lot, a German-made system that brings cars down to the parking garage in an elevator. It’s a five minute walk to Jaffa’s trendy market, the quaint seafaring dock, and will offer shuttle service to the hotel’s private beach.

At the Isrotel, about 12 months from completion, guests will be able to leave their suites at the hotel — where some will be ensconced in the ‘heritage suites’ in the two Templar buildings — and walk across to the restored Ottoman-era train station just across the way. It’s all part of joining the city’s eras and architectures with Jerusalem’s contemporary spaces.

“These kinds of projects are the meeting point of something very historical and very modern,” said Carmel, the restoration expert. “When they meet together properly, when the architecture is done well, you can really create a jewel.”

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