Friday, July 25, 1997

LebEnv #33


by Fareed Abou-Haidar

The traditional view of the Lebanese mountains, whether in an old photograph or painting, usually includes clusters of traditional Lebanese houses. Even Beirut was once a city of elegant villas and palaces surrounded by fragrant gardens with fountain pools (birkeh). The "Lebanese house" is usually a stone building with a large arch framing a vaulted ceiling on the ground floor, three arches centered over a narrow baloney on the upper floor, all topped by a steep, red-tiled roof; this exterior format was adapted from the villas of Venice sometime in the middle of the 19th century. Or perhaps it is a more humble house with walls of roughly-hewn stones and a timber-and-mud roof with a stone roller (mahdaleh) to keep it compacted. Or it may be an elegant palace from the late 18th or early 19th century.

Unfortunately, the buildings that complement the natural landscape and give Lebanon such an appealing character have been steadily disappearing.

The first to go were old houses, many of them true palaces, in Beirut as land values soared and old buildings were demolished and replaced by tall apartment and office buildings. Downtown Beirut was on the way to losing most of its oldest buildings when the war began. The war destroyed what the sledgehammers and bulldozers would have eventually demolished in peacetime. If anything, the war may ironically have saved a few houses. Many of the old buildings that survived the war have become cherished landmarks and reminders of a lost past that are being restored as part of the plan to rebuild the downtown area.

Still other houses were destroyed in the name of "progress." A couple of years before the war began, a whole row of beautiful old houses along Ibn Sina Street in the Ain el-Mreisseh quarter of Beirut were destroyed to widen the street. One particularly beautiful house with arcaded balconies on both floors facing the sea, celebrated in countless paintings and photographs, was demolished so the Corniche could be extended. (Beirut's traffic jams are worse than ever, showing that a solution other than building more roads is needed; i.e. a good public-transit system). The Akkawi district used to contain many sumptuous old villas; many have been destroyed; the Sursock Palace and Museum is a notable survivor. Nearby, one old, elegant building at the north-east corner of the "Ring Boulevard" and "Nazlet Akkawi" was used as the Lebanese Foreign Ministry during the war. In the early 1990s, after the war was over, it was illegally demolished overnight by its owner after the Lebanese government refused to grant him a demolition permit.

In the mountains before the war, the old houses were largely secure, but their scenic setting was being degraded as new, multi-story apartment buildings went up among them, with little planning for the overall setting. During the war, thousands of old houses were destroyed all over the mountains, especially given their fragile red-tile roofs and stucco ceilings. Some were damaged or destroyed during fighting, and many of those and others away from the front lines were looted and deliberately dismantled. Doors, windows, floor tiles, roof tiles, wooden beams, and other fixtures were scavenged, leaving a stone skeleton. In extreme cases, even the stones were dismantled and taken away.

Many surviving houses have been altered in a way that has diminished their historical value. Narrow balconies were replaced by large ones on concrete columns that do not fit the character of the houses. New rooms with mismatched windows and walls were attached to the side. In extreme cases, the roof was removed so that an extra floor, built of concrete and with a flat roof, could be added.

Next time: Part 2: Renovation.

(See other photographs from some of the areas mentioned above.)



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