As Sursock Palace picks up the pieces, owner wants the Beirut landmark to be turned into a museum

Roderick Sursock Cochrane talks of his plans to restore the badly damaged Sursock Palace after the August 4 explosion

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It's been just about six months since the devastating August 4 blast at the Port of Beirut. And as Lebanon struggles with many national crises, the capital's famed Sursock Palace remains in dire need of repairs and funds after suffering severe damage.

"It was as if a hurricane had blown into each and every room," owner Roderick Sursock Cochrane tells The National. "Even now, when I enter the house five months later, there are a lot of things that were damaged that I did not notice before."

Overlooking Beirut's harbour, Sursock Palace is one of the city's most well-known historical landmarks. Originally completed in 1860 by Moussa Sursock, the grand residence has served as the family's home for more than 150 years.

The palace displays many features typical of Lebanese Ottoman-era architecture, including its sweeping towers and beautiful arching windows, surrounded on all sides by lush gardens. Until recently, the estate served as the family's primary source of income as a venue for weddings and other functions. It also houses an extensive private collection of priceless antiquities and cultural artefacts.

I feel this house totally belongs to the family – and to me in particular – but it also belongs to Lebanon

This is not the first time Sursock Palace has been struck by catastrophe. During the Lebanese Civil War, Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane – a philanthropist, patron of the arts and founder of the Association for the Protection of Natural Sites and Ancient Buildings in Lebanon – personally protected the breached building from intruders and looters, despite the conflict engulfing the country around her. "She looked after [the house] like a treasure for many years, but my mother was also a pioneer of [cultural preservation] here in Lebanon," says Sursock Cochrane. "She fought for many years to protect old houses in Lebanon, beautiful places and things like that. She was obviously very proud of that."

Lady Yvonne died in August last year at the age of 98, after sustaining injuries from the port blast. She was posthumously awarded the National Order of the Cedar, the highest state order of Lebanon.

Now, with the help of the RestArt Beirut fund, Sursock Cochrane hopes to continue his mother's legacy of conservation by turning their ancestral home into a museum, opening Sursock Palace and its collection to the public for the first time.

The fund was created under the aegis of the King Baudouin Foundation in Brussels, with the aim of driving economic and social revival in Lebanon by revitalising the country's rich cultural heritage – beginning with Sursock Palace – through crowdsourcing and donations.

Roderick Sursock Cochrane, left, with Joseph El Hayek. 
Roderick Sursock Cochrane, left, with Joseph El Hayek. 

Joseph El Hayek, co-founder of RestArt Beirut, was put in touch with the Sursock Cochrane family through Anne-Marie Afeiche, director-general of the General Council of Museums in Lebanon. "Sursock Palace is an iconic place in Beirut and it is very fascinating, both to the Lebanese and to those who come to visit Lebanon," El Hayek says.

If renovations go as planned, the aim is to convert the palace into a museum that would open to the public by 2025.

“I feel this house totally belongs to the family – and to me in particular – but it also belongs to Lebanon,” Sursock Cochrane says.

Despite Sursock Palace’s pre-eminent position in Lebanon’s cultural heritage, obtaining the necessary financial aid to restore the ravaged building and its collection has proven difficult.

Painting_Lady Cochrane residence photoBassamLahoud
A painting inside Sursock Palace damaged by the Beirut blast. Bassam Lahoud

Lebanon remains in the grip of a financial crisis, the Lebanese pound has depreciated and the central bank has frozen accounts held in US dollars, in an attempt to prop up the struggling banking sector. Meanwhile, foreign investors remain hard to come by because of concerns over misappropriation and transparency.

"The problem is that the administration in Lebanon is very difficult," Sursock Cochrane says. "People are wary of giving money to Lebanon, about how it's going to be spent and so on."

Among the daunting list of tasks set out for the restorers, how to go about salvaging and safeguarding Sursock Palace's collection is perhaps the most challenging aspect of the project. "The know-how exists," says El Hayek. "The craftsmanship exists, but this demands a lot of expertise and this is unfortunately not something that is being taught in Lebanon, so that's why we are inviting international experts to come. There are more than 15 paintings that are very heavily damaged and need to be fully restored.

"Porcelain, ceramics, everything is completely scattered and in very small pieces, but we didn't throw anything [away]. We are just going to try to repair the items and bring them back to life in the same state as they were before."

Early funds raised for the palace restoration have gone towards covering the damaged roof with temporary corrugated iron sheets and sealing the broken doors and windows against the harsh winter rains, to prevent further harm to the building’s main structure.

However, a lot more money needs to be secured before the museum project can be completed. "The building itself will require something around $6 million to restore because everything has to be redone," says Sursock Cochrane. "Everything has to be restored in a state-of-the-art fashion, and the same with the paintings and the carpets. Everything has to be done very carefully and thoroughly."

Despite work having temporarily stopped owing to the current Covid-19 lockdown in Beirut, Sursock Cochrane insists the restoration effort for the palace must continue.

"I have to feel optimistic or else I would emigrate, but I can't do that because I've got too many responsibilities here, so I have to have a positive outlook towards things," he says.

“Unfortunately, we’ve been taken hostage by people like Hezbollah. I’m really worried about where Lebanon is going, politically and on the whole.

“Ours is not only a question of restoring the house. It’s also a bit of a cultural resistance, which is important at this time. We can’t surrender. We have got to carry on.”