Lebanon’s Rose House gets a new lease of life

Beirut's historic buildings risk facing demolition as new buildings constantly spring up. Will Rose House suffer the same fate?
An exhibition by British artist Tom Young aims to save the iconic Rose House from demolition as new buildings continue to srping up in Beirut. Fernande van Tets For The National
An exhibition by British artist Tom Young aims to save the iconic Rose House from demolition as new buildings continue to srping up in Beirut. Fernande van Tets For The National

BEIRUT // The Ottoman villa faces the sea, surrounded by palm trees, sitting in the shadow of a black and white lighthouse.

Beirut’s elite once revelled in the terraced, ochre-pink mansion, known as the Rose House, during the 1960s and 1970s, when the high-ceilinged and, during those days, lavishly decorated rooms were filled with art and visiting dignitaries.

It also survived the dark days of the 1975-1990 civil war. Now, the grand arched facade offers Beirutis a glimmer of hope that such historic buildings can be preserved.

An exhibition by British artist Tom Young aims to save the iconic mansion from the fate that has befallen many others before it, as demolition threatens to make way for towers of glass and steel.

Rising just next door is a vision of what this house could become: yet another large apartment block.

When Mr Young, purely out of curiosity, first knocked on the door of the house in April, its last tenant, 71-year old Fayza Al Khazen, was just moving out.

The house was sold to developers a few years ago, following the death of its last childless owner, a member of Beirut’s Adaty family, which built the house in 1882.

Ms Al Khazen agreed to let Mr Young paint her last five months at the house. Mr Young also managed to convince Hisham Jaroudi, the developer who bought the house and surrounding hill a few years ago, to allow him to exhibit the works. He painted interiors and exteriors of the house and also abstract images that show the urban landscape closing in around it.

“He was considering a number of options, turning it into his own private house, a hotel, it was a bit of a mystery. What I am trying to do is to show him the value of the place as a cultural public space,” says Mr Young.

The house has now been given a new lease on life as an art space. Mr Jaroudi has said the space will become a museum.

But most of Beirut’s historic buildings are not so lucky.

The Lebanese NGO Association for Protection of Natural Sites and Old Buildings listed 1,051 buildings as heritage sites in 1996.

Two years later, the government designated only 200 of these buildings as worth protecting, allowing developers to destroy hundreds of the structures.

Some disappeared overnight, before activists could intervene. Only 250 of the designated buildings remain today.

Beirut is currently experiencing a housing bubble. Foreign investors are holding on to their property, and buyers are scarce due to insecurity. Only 28 per cent of luxury Beirut residential projects completed in 2012, with an asking price over $2,800 per square meter, have been fully sold. The average sales price of residential properties in Lebanon ranges between US$3,800 and US$4,500 per square metre. The average apartment in the capital still costs $1 million though, as most are large; 250 square metres on average.

“Greed is the biggest threat, people just think short term,” says Joanna Hammour, an activist with Save Beirut Heritage, a non-profit organisation trying to stem the tide of demolition.

“It’s the face of the city, the image of the city. If we lose that, who are we are? Are we Dubai? These houses are a testimony to our identity,” she says, pointing out that houses in the East Beirut area of Gemmayze are also under threat.

Developers and owners are given few incentives to preserve old buildings.

Ms Hammour’s organisation has pushed for a law that would protect what historic buildings remain.

The current legislation dates back to 1933, during the French mandate period, and only protects “products of human activity” built before 1700.

The new law, which will protect heritage buildings constructed after 1700 and stimulate financial conservation, has languished in parliament since 2007.

The speaker of the house, Nabih Berri, who activists accuse of owning property that would be affected by its passage, has yet to schedule a vote on the bill.

Another threat to Beirut’s heritage is that “there is not a framework that values its actual significance,” says Mona Fawaz, associate professor of urban planning at the American University Beirut. Individual property rights triumph over the well-being of the community, Ms Fawaz says.

A 2010 decree from the Ministry of Culture states that permits must be obtained for any house demolition in Beirut.

Yet, such permits are easily acquired, and those with powerful connections almost always win their case upon appeal to Lebanon’s Majlis Shura, says Ms Hammour.

When legal methods do not work, some choose other paths.

“‘The rain was so heavy that the house just collapsed’ is one explanation that was offered for a listed building that was demolished overnight,” says Ms Hammour.

“And the Akkar Palace was also destroyed at night; the family blocked the street with armed guards. By the time we got down there with the minister of culture there was only one facade left,” she says, describing the demolition of another historic house located in Beirut’s Hamra district.

For now at least, such a fate seems to have been averted for the Rose House.

In a video at the exhibition, which will run until December 30, Fadyza Al Khazen, resplendent in a silver gown with pearls, says she hopes the house that was her home for 50 years will become an inspiration for the country.

“I hope that if this house is renovated, it will be a sign that Lebanon is also being renewed,” she says with a wistful smile.

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: December 8, 2014 04:00 AM

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