Friday, December 4, 1998
OLD HOUSES BEING PRESERVED
by Fareed Abou-Haidar
Before the war began, Beirut was being transformed from a charming city of red-roofed houses and small buildings surrounded by gardens into a mass of concrete high-rise buildings. Everyone took it for granted that eventually all the older buildings of Beirut would be gone in the name of progress.
The war took care of many old buildings that the developers had not gotten to yet, and many more were needlessly lost after the war during an over-ambitious effort to transform downtown Beirut. Ironically, these events resulted in an appreciation of what was left. Many older downtown buildings that would have fallen to the sledgehammer if the prewar trend had continued were saved.
Still, I assumed that, in the rest of Beirut beyond downtown, the older buildings were doomed. Imagine my reaction when I went to Beirut last June and stumbled into the area of Abdul-Wahhab el-Inglizi Street in Ashrafieh. There, dozens of buildings have been meticulously restored. This includes many of the traditional nineteenth-century Lebanese houses with red tile roofs, long appreciated by fans of Lebanese architecture. However, many more-recent buildings have been saved. These were built earlier this century after concrete replaced stone as a building material. They usually feature several floors, spacious balconies supported by pillars, windows on all four sides, and charming Art Deco features such as angular or rounded arches and concrete moldings. These buildings were, until recently unappreciated, something that you moved out of when you could afford it. Their paint was long gone, and the concrete was crumbling. Now, they, as symbols of a gracious lifestyle of the past, have been rediscovered. At least one such building has been transformed into a nice hotel. Countless fine restaurants have opened up in the area, attracting many people who got fed up with the traffic between Beirut and Jounieh's culinary attractions.
After the initial discovery, I made a point of going on a walking tour of the area, admiring the variety of buildings ranging from elaborate mansions from the last century to more humble buildings from the 1940s with simple lines and rounded balconies similar to the one where I spent my first three years before it was demolished. I took pictures left, right, and above.
Other old buildings have been renovated elsewhere in Beirut, including a humble two-story concrete house on Mar Elias Street in Mseitbeh that has been covered with stone and fitted with beautiful outdoor lights. Scattered among the boring apartment buildings everywhere in the city are gems of Art Deco architecture like I have not seen anywhere else.
The government has been enforcing a law that requires owners to repaint their buildings every few years. In many cases, the bare minimum has been done, where paint is applied over cracks, holes, and splintering wood. The examples mentioned above, however, were restored with permanence in mind.
The government has also passed a law classifying hundreds of buildings as historical. This includes one street, Rue Gouraud, in the Rmeil district near the port, where dozens of old houses survive, forming an intact neighborhood.
What I saw in Beirut exceeded my wildest dreams. Perhaps Beirut can save some of what made it special. Go to any European city, and you will see that the center has changed little from what it was like a century or more ago: Paris, Rome, London (what was not destroyed by aerial bombing), Marseille, Zurich, Dubrovnik, Istanbul... In Miami, there is a whole district of restored Art Deco buildings that is world famous. Tourists flock by the million to these cities, not just to see museums, but also to experience the ambiance of the cities as a whole. No one wants to go and look at a bunch of new apartment buildings. Beirut can still preserve the charming Mediterranean setting, not just for the sake of tourists on walking tours of old neighborhoods, but as an inspiration for the Lebanese themselves.
Fareed's Home Page (with articles and photos on the environment in Lebanon) at http://members.aol.com/fdadlion/