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House hunting

Tours, walks and talks about Jerusalem’s oldest and newest homes and institutions during the annual Batim Mibifnim event

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

The original columns and courtyard of Matti Rosenshine's designs in Mahane Yehuda (photo credit: Ilan Nachum)
The original columns and courtyard of Matti Rosenshine's designs in Mahane Yehuda (photo credit: Ilan Nachum)

My first experience with house tours harks back to Brooklyn in the early 1990s when I would join family and friends for the annual Brooklyn Heights Association House Tour each May. We would wind our way along narrow cobblestoned downtown Brooklyn streets, angling for tours of the best brownstones — which in that neighborhood meant they were fully renovated, kitchen and dining room on the lower lever and parlor above, with full views of the New York Harbor and the Statue of Liberty.

Over here, the house tours that take place as part of Batim Mibifnim, or Houses from Within, have a different set of standards. Batim Mibifnim Tel Aviv, which takes place in May, often focuses on Bauhaus architecture, the predominant style in the White City, while Jerusalemites go gaga over so-called Arab architecture, when traditional elements, such as arched windows, high ceilings and tiled floors form the basis of local homes.

With Batim Mibifnim Jerusalem starting this Thursday, the event, as always, offers the opportunity to take a peek at institutions and homes that aren’t usually open to the public and absorb a sense of the history, place and people who have resided there. There are 120 locations available for this year’s event, most of which don’t require registration. It’s an opportunity to visit public places that are undergoing renovation and change, such as the landscape architecture of Emek Refaim Park or the control room of the Electric Company in Givat Shaul, and private homes, orchards and observatories throughout the city.

Take a look at the list and make some decisions, as the event begins Thursday, and then read through the five that we’ve taken a sneak peak at for you.

Architect Matti Rosenshine brought light into a formerly dingy apartment by fitting the windows with glass ledges, that also let light into the lower floor (photo credit: Ilan Nachum)
Architect Matti Rosenshine brought light into a formerly dingy apartment by fitting the windows with glass ledges, that also let light into the lower floor (photo credit: Ilan Nachum)

1) I’ve got a soft spot for private homes, possibly because of that long-ago Brooklyn experience or a latent architectural bent of my own. I tend to first scan the Batim Mibifnim list for architecturally interesting private homes, where design has played a key element in showing off that particular residence. I immediately spotted the 160-square-meter Mahane Yehuda apartment redesigned by architect Matti Rosenshine, who will be leading visits around the home and describing the design choices made in order to enhance the typical Jerusalem facets of this 80-year-old home.

Rosenshine said it was dark and dingy and had “horrible air circulation” when he first saw it. He worked on opening it to the private inner courtyard, while splitting it into two levels of private and public space. Using lots of wood and glass — and inserting plenty of storage space  — there’s a constant contrast between the old and the new, perhaps best exemplified by the original stone columns that still stand in the entrance creating a welcoming vestibule. An Apartment in Mahane Yehuda, 22 Beersheva Street, open tour Thursday, November 7, 16:00-18:30; Friday, November 8, 10:00-13:00, no reservation required.

2) Also along those lines is another private home, the 90-meter Baka apartment of Kobi Zik and his family. An architect working on a doctoral dissertation on the connection between music and architecture, Zik took the standard, three-bedroom Israeli apartment that he and his wife purchased for their growing family and used it as a kind of thesis. “My wife said, ‘be your own client,’” he said, describing how each space reflects different musical genres. There’s jazz in the kitchen, where Bauhaus architect Alma Buscher inspired him to create a system of open cupboards and drawers that play like a jazz composition; classical in the all-white living room (yes, he has three small children) and a series of built-in instruments throughout the space, with removable drumming boxes in the playroom, a balcony handrail made out of strings and a set of accordion light switches in the living room.

What’s ultimately inspiring is the simplicity of the space and materials, such as a row of Ikea show drawers and lots of built-in shelves and benches, all made of sandwich board and a long line of simple spots for living room lighting. Tours of “A Musical Apartment” are unfortunately fully booked, but check the Batim Mibifnim site for updated information. 6 Esther HaMalka, tours on Friday, November 8, 11:00, 11:30, 12:00,12:30.

The refurbished entrance of the old Hansen Hospital, once home to Jerusalem's lepers, now a media and technology lab (photo credit: Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)3) You’re not limited to Batim Mibifnim in order to visit the former Hansen Hospital, which served as a shelter for lepers until 2000 and served as Jerusalem’s local haunted house to legions of schoolchildren. Having undergone a significant renovation, it has now opened as the Hansen Center for Design, Media and Technology. The building and seven-dunam plot surrounding the space are the joint effort of the Jerusalem Development Foundation, the Prime Minister’s Office, Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and several other smaller organizations taking part in its new life. Several rooms on the first floor have been restored as hospital rooms and will serve as part of the permanent exhibition, but most of the building now houses artists and designers involved in art and technology, including those engaged in advanced degree programs offered by Bezalel. That said, anyone is welcome to come in and walk around, strolling down the corridors and through the rooms that once housed lepers and are now home to screens, computers and those who work on them. You can also bring lunch and sit in the garden, which will feature at least 5,000 cyclamens in coming weeks. The Batim Mibifnim tours are fully booked, but visitors can walk in and tour the grounds every day of the week.

A view of Bible Hill, one of Jerusalem's ancient, untouched nature sites (Courtesy Batim Mibifnim)
A view of Bible Hill, one of Jerusalem’s ancient, untouched nature sites (Courtesy Batim Mibifnim)

4) Ever wondered about that deserted hill sandwiched between the restored First Station and the parking lot across from the Cinematheque and Mount Zion Hotel? Here’s your chance to do a little research. Join guides from the Society for the Protection of Nature who will explain this small, urban nature site, one of the few left in the city for its unusual concentration of wild plants. It’s located at the top of a watershed, and offers fabulous views of the Judean Desert and Judean Hills. Bible Hill, meet at the parking lot across from the Mount Zion Hotel, Saturday, 11 am, open tour, no reservations required.

The sundial by sculptor Maty Grunberg, featured at the new Teddy Kollek park (Courtesy Maty Grunberg)
The sundial by sculptor Maty Grunberg, featured at the new Teddy Kollek park (Courtesy Maty Grunberg)

5) There’s been a lot of talk about the new Teddy Kollek Park, mostly comments and questions about when the musical water fountain spurts its magic during the hot summer season. This is the opportunity to hear about the planning and construction process behind the Jerusalem Foundation project that has become a local attraction. Established in memory of the city’s beloved mayor, Teddy Kollek, it sits across from Jaffa Gate, extending some two acres, and includes a visitor’s center that describes the development of Jerusalem under Kollek’s tenure.

The tours of the park will be led by park architect Isaac Halfon, who will talk about the changes made to the park plan when archaeological remains were discovered at the site; Maty Grünberg, the sculptor of the sundial, will also be on hand. If you haven’t had a chance to see the fountain in action, both tours will end with a show of the water fountain that is accompanied by the original Jerusalem Symphony piece orchestrated for the water show. Teddy Kollek Park, meeting at the corner, above the descent to the park, Friday, November 8, 4 pm and Saturday, November 9, 4 pm, no reservations required.

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