Musee Henry: new museum sheds light on Beirut's demolished heritage homes

Henry Loussian's house-museum displays thousands of objects salvaged from the past

Every room in the Musee Henry has a story. But often, fiction blurs with reality.

“This is the story of Malek, Fatou and Delware, the three servants that keep and protect this house,” says Henry Loussian, a collector, self-taught painter and designer in Beirut who built and founded the house-museum. He is lying flat on an antique bed in the museum’s guest bedroom, gazing up at the ceiling, as we, the visitors, sit around him and listen.

Above him is a hand-painted ceiling panel, with three portraits in each corner. The style of painting, decorative and naive, is typical of those found in 19th-century heritage homes across Lebanon.

At the outset, Loussian’s museum appears like a typical heritage home of its time. But just like the three servants painted on the ceiling, the entire building is a fiction. “When I was growing up in Beirut, I didn’t care for the old townhouses. Then one day I saw one from the inside,” he recalls. “I thought to myself: I want a house like this.”

The story of Musee Henry

For about 14 years, Loussian salvaged antique objects and architectural pieces from more than 100 heritage homes in Beirut that were facing demolition. Then, in a plot of land outside the seaside town of Batroun, he built a house in the same style.

The museum is decorated with the original tiles, arches, stone door frames and ceilings from five historic homes in Lebanon's capital. Among the objects he reclaimed is the bathtub of former prime minister Takieddin el-Solh, and a tainted glass arched window with the Star of David from the former Jewish quarter of Wadi Abou Jamil.

Quote
I fell in love with Beirut, and Beirut fell in love with me
Henry Loussian, founder of Musee Henry

“Nothing you see in the house is new. The objects are all original." The architectural layout of a traditional townhouse has also been respected, with a large central living room, arched window dividers leading on to the terrace, high ceilings with painted panels and tiled floors.

As we enter the house into the brightly lit living area, three panels of lattice-work window arches, made of cedar wood, divide the room on either side. “These arches are an important feature of the Beirut house. It creates this light, airy feel to the room, and later it was adopted across cities like Alexandria, Smyrna and Damascus,” he explains.

A blurring of reality and fiction

Loussian, who emphasises his faith, views his work as a mission. “When I first completed my home in 2013, very few people came to visit me. They weren't interested in the work I had been doing.” That’s when he identified a missing touch to the house: the painting ceilings. In the ensuing years, he painted these himself using patterns from Lebanese homes that he found in books.

Loussian is a stickler for historical accuracy. He explains every detail of the home with reference books and his own archival material. “The house has 77 pointed arched windows in total.” A typical home would have had less than 20, he says. “I just love them so much.”

Reality and fiction continue to blur when he shows us an installation of vintage Louis Vuitton travel trunks. “These were the trunks my grandmother Helene Merhej used to travel with to America.” Next to these sits a printed photograph of a travelling woman derived from a vintage commercial.

This is a museum about his home, explains Loussian, as he walks us through the house. “I fell in love with Beirut, and Beirut fell in love with me.” The city’s transience and constant evolution contribute to its magic, he says. "Paris is recognisably Paris, and Venice will always be the same Venice. But in Beirut, you find hidden gems while walking amid high-rise buildings."

From Beirut to Batroun

It's interesting then that the museum is located in north Lebanon. “Let me answer a question that I know you’re all going to ask – why build a museum dedicated to Beirut away from the city, here in Batroun?” From the balcony, he points to an expanse of orchards beneath the house, the mountains of northern Lebanon on the right, and the sea to the left. “My answer is here,” he says.

“Beirut was once surrounded by orchards. When you came out on to your balcony, you saw the fruit trees, you saw the top of Sannine mountain. And wherever you were in the city, you were never too far from the sea.”

In the post-war years, Beirut’s heritage buildings have regularly been demolished to make way for new property projects. As such, Loussian’s collection was an urgent response to a city that has rapidly lost its historical identity. “There were three men in charge of preparing the homes for demolition. Their names were Abu Ali, Abu Tarek and Abu Samir,” he recalls. “I would agree to buy objects from them, as long as they allowed me to enter the house before and document it.”

Not everything could be saved, however. He shows photographs of arched panels from the former Al-Makassed Girl’s School in Beirut. “I told Abu Ali, hold on to these for me, I’ll be back for them. But that week, some children broke into the house to play football, and smashed all the windows.”

Today, the existing damage has been compounded by the August 4, 2020 port explosion, in which the city’s last remaining heritage homes were severely affected. Loussian hopes the museum can keep their memory alive among Lebanon’s youth. “We have so many beautiful homes in Beirut, but we never experience them,” he says.

He's now amassed enough objects and photographs to build at least two more homes like this. His dream, he says, would be to reconstruct a heritage-style home in Horsh Beirut, one of the city’s rare parks at the heart of the capital. “It would be a collaborative project for all Beirutis and Lebanese."

Updated: August 5th 2021, 8:52 AM
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