Israel travels

On the east-west shadowline: Jerusalem’s municipal complex

From Safra Square to Paratroopers Road, the area is an open book whose pages reveal fascinating phases in the city’s modern history

Very little of Jerusalem’s municipal complex is meant to be symbolic. Even the palm trees that grace Safra Square at the entrance to the complex simply provide a tranquil buffer between the noisy main street on which it’s located and the quieter plaza. What isn’t coincidence, however, is City Hall’s location. Situated directly on the seam that once divided Jerusalem, the entire complex is equally accessible to residents of both the eastern and western parts of the city.

Ideas for a municipal center in which offices would be concentrated together began to appear in the 1950’s but never came to fruition. One proposal that popped up over the years included a horrendous suggestion for a 23-story building. Fortunately, by the time the project was ready to get off the ground, historical preservation had come into fashion. As a result, 10 of the eleven early 20th century buildings constructed around the present site were lovingly restored for municipal use.

Daniel Park and Memorial to Rabin (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Daniel Park and Memorial to Rabin (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

From Safra Square, named for its generous benefactor, all the way to Paratroopers Road across from the Old City Walls, the municipal complex is an open book whose pages reveal fascinating phases in the city’s modern history. Daniel Park, for instance, is located right next to the plaza. Named for Daniel Auster, who served as Jerusalem’s first Jewish mayor after the establishment of the State of Israel, it is more commonly known as Gan Ha’ir (City Park) and was far larger when established in 1892 than it is today.

In its early years, the park hosted colorful outdoor concerts performed by a Turkish orchestra in striking regalia and conducted by a Russian Jew. By adding benches, trees, attractive lamps, stone sculptures like the Sacrifice of Isaac and a brushed-steel memorial to late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, the City restored the now minuscule park to some of its former beauty. Missing from the contemporary scene, however, are the ladies of easy morals who once strolled its lanes!

On July 7, 1948, soon after the establishment of the State and in the midst of the War of Independence, Israel and Jordan signed an agreement that effectively shut down the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus. A new branch of the University eventually opened in Jerusalem, the Givat Ram campus of today, but until then, University departments were scattered all over the city.

Money for the original municipality was made available by Barclay’s Bank. Jagged holes scar the facade of the former bank-site, the result of shells fired during the Independence and Six-Day Wars, and by Jordanian snipers in the years between, when Jerusalem was divided

Across from the Municipality’s main building — City Hall — stands a row of elegant early 20th century structures that today serve as municipal offices. The closest,  originally a 19th-century dwelling, housed the University’s Zoology Department for three decades.

The adjacent edifice was built in the 1880’s by Peter (Paul) Melville Bergheim, a German Jew who converted to Christianity and arrived here in the mid 19th-century. Its roof is covered with red tiles; these, and the attic that seems to rise out of the center, lend it a distinctly European character. Its arched entrance is set into a niche, with two inviting stone benches on either side and a Star of David on the keystone.

Bergheim established the first bank in Jerusalem and helped create the basis for the city’s modern commerce. Financial difficulties forced the family to sell its home even before Bergheim’s death in 1890, and all kinds of people moved in after that. One of the most famous was Henrietta Szold. As founder of the Hadassah women’s organization, and the dynamic director of Youth Aliya, she set up her first offices in Bergheim House.

Later on it was sold, together with the handsome edifice behind it at #5, to a Christian Arab by the name of Darouti. During the British Mandate, the luxurious residence became the rear wing of the Darouti Hotel, along with Bergheim House. The two were connected together by a bridge.

Darouti House (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Darouti House (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

House of the Bible on the same row was built by the British and the Foreign Bible Society in 1926 and looks almost exactly as it did during its heyday. The most interesting feature of the house is a large, empty glass showcase in which the New Testament was once displayed. During restoration, its colorful Armenian tiles, copper dome and woodwork were repaired. Veteran Jerusalemites relate that during the Mandate period the showcase was covered with purple velvet and lit up by electricity.

Five strange triangles under the roof contain little rows of symmetrical, round windows that let air and light into the building. A tour guide once showed me similar apertures in Old Jaffa, explaining that they served as primitive air conditioners. The assumption was that hot air would rise and escape through the openings.

Nothing is left of the Feil Hotel, once a Jerusalem Landmark. The hotel, which stood at the far end of the row and across from the Old City Walls, was a fixture in the city as far back as 1882. At the time, it was recommended to tourists in a Jerusalem guidebook which noted that they could lodge in tents located in the hotel yard.

Decades passed, and after more modern guest accommodations appeared in the city, the hotel closed down and became a residential building. During the 1960s, Jerusalemites often spent their evenings on the ground floor of the structure, smacking their lips over the freshly baked wares of a bagelmacher (“bagel maker”) who stayed open all night long. After city regulations shut down his makeshift bakery, the bagelmacher was reduced to selling his customers warmed‑up bagels. Little by little, hungry Jerusalemites took their business to the flourishing stands outside Damascus Gate and, ultimately, this once-popular Jerusalem institution disappeared.

All four of these buildings are situated along a wide sidewalk. In the past, however, they faced a street called Yohanan from Gush Halav, named after the famous Jewish commander who defended Jerusalem against Rome during the Great Revolt (66-73 C.E.)

On the other side of the sidewalk, a slightly darker building served as the Jerusalem Town Hall until replaced by the contemporary municipality in 1996. Designed in 1930 by an English architect and inaugurated two years later, it lacks ornamentation. But the Jerusalem stone of which it is made is pleasing and two palm trees in front of the squat pillars at the entrance add a touch of color.

Engraved on the cornerstone are the words “Municipal Offices. This stone was laid by Sir Steuart [sic] Spencer Davis . . .” The mayor at the time was Ragheb Bey el Nashashibi. Although the city consistently had a Jewish majority, the British only appointed Muslim Arab mayors to run Jerusalem.

The former Barclays Bank and City Buildings. Note the bright yellow lion at the entrance. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The former Barclays Bank and City Buildings. Note the bright yellow lion at the entrance. (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Money for the original municipality was made available by Barclay’s Bank, whose offices were located in the rounded section of the solid stone building and faced the Old City walls. Jagged holes scar the facade of the former bank-site. They are the result of shells fired during the Independence and Six-Day Wars, and by Jordanian snipers in the years between, when Jerusalem was divided. Despite restoration on the building, the holes were left as they were, and serve to remind onlookers of Jerusalem’s travails.

Unlike the gracious old buildings that are part of the complex, the six-story Municipality is new. Nevertheless, its architect endowed it with some fascinating eastern features. Bluish-gray gratings on the exterior are called mushrabiya and resemble an Oriental element very common in Jerusalem’s Arab neighborhoods. Generally made out of wood in Arab homes, they are certainly decorative; and they enable women to gaze outside without being seen by passersby. Rows of red and white stones in the facade were common in Mameluke architecture and add warmth to the modern structure: tiles in the plaza are a pleasing red and white, as well.

The Russian Consulate, just behind and slightly below City Hall, is one of a group of buildings situated on land purchased from the Turks (who ruled the country) in 1860. Known as the Russian Compound, it was intended to serve Orthodox pilgrims to the Holy Land and featured the ornamental consulate, a hospital, separate hostels for men and women, and a stunning Cathedral.

In the past, a Russian flag waved from the top of a second-story tower in the Russian Consulate; during the 1950s, the structure housed the Hebrew University’s medical laboratories. More recently, the building was incorporated into the municipal complex.

On the opposite side of City Hall, the Russian hospital was designed in what the literature describes as “Russian Renaissance.” The first hospital to go up outside of the Old City, it differed from Jerusalem’s English, German, and Jewish-run hospitals, where all origins and creeds could find care. Indeed, its services were exclusive to Russian pilgrims, clergy, and the local Arab Orthodox population. The British appropriated this architectural gem during their Mandate, utilizing it as a prison hospital.

In 1946, underground activist Geula Cohen was in the middle of an illegal radio broadcast when apprehended by the British and sentenced to nine years in prison. She was sent to the women’s prison facility in Bethlehem, where, as soon as possible, she tried to flee. Wounded in the attempt, she ended up in the British prison hospital.

It was from the Russian hospital-turned-British prison hospital that, disguised as an Arab, Cohen was finally able to escape and to return to her underground activities. (Later, she would become a member of the Israeli parliament and eventually head her own political party).

The standing bears at Safra Square (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The standing bears at Safra Square (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

During the War of Independence, the British hospital was transformed into a hospital for wounded Israeli troops. It became known as Avi-Hayil (“Father of the Soldiers”) and, today, is an integral part of Jerusalem’s municipal complex.

Over the years, Jerusalemites have enjoyed some lively additions to the complex: for a time, bears stood on parade, and before that, lions provided lots of color in the plaza (today the lions are scattered around the city, including a large yellow lion opposite the Old City walls). More recently, wonderfully comfy looking cushions have become permanent fixtures in several parts of the complex. They come with a sign warning visitors that they are made of concrete and to take care before sitting down!


Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel

Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed, tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups. 

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