The 90-year-old paintings under layers of plaster and paint on the walls of a Tel Aviv building have amazed conservationists. But they are concerned about the murals’ future: the building’s owners are only required to preserve the paintings on the stairwell.
“We were very happy with the richness of the find, but we regret what we lost due to the owners’ lack of awareness and interest,” says Tamar Tochler of the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites.
The murals, discovered during renovations of a 1921 building on 5 Nahalat Binyamin St., include landscapes and depictions of plants, flowers, fruits and trees.
“This is the first time wall paintings have been found in Tel Aviv that include landscapes,” says Shai Farkash, the owner of a studio that conserves such works.
Last week Farkash’s team was working overtime to uncover the murals, assisted by foreign students from the International Conservation Center in Old Acre. A conservation artist, Ben Buchenbacher, whom the building’s owners have commissioned to work on the paintings, calls it “a rescue mission.”
According to Noga Di Segni of the preservation society, landscape paintings have been found in other Israeli cities. “There probably were others like it elsewhere in the city that didn’t survive,” she says.
The building, designed by the architect Yehoshua Zvi Tabachnik (Tavori), is known for the Balcony Pub that has occupied the second floor for years. “When we were having a good time at Balcony, we never imagined what was hiding behind these walls,” one conservation worker says.
Tabachnik came to Palestine from Odessa in 1919 with the wave of immigration known as the Third Aliyah. He arrived on the SS Ruslan, the ship that brought the poetess Rachel and the journalist Moshe Glickson, who became Haaretz’s editor. Tabachnik left the country six years later and continued his architectural career in Brooklyn.
Tabachnik also planned the building across the street, known as the Palm House because of the magnificent palm tree covering the windows of two stories. His buildings were part of an original Land of Israel style that mixed Eastern and Western motifs.
Other buildings in this style, which can be seen on Nahalat Binyamin and nearby Allenby Street, feature seven-branched candelabra, Stars of David, palm-tree glass windows and wrought-iron railings depicting the raised corners of the biblical altar.
According to Shula Vidrich, a historian of Tel Aviv, the house was built for one Yehuda Skopasky, and five years later it was sold to an eye doctor. It changed hands in 1933 when brothers Chaim and Israel Brecht bought it, using the first floor for their velvet import business.
“We have to remember that there were wealthy bourgeois people who built fine houses with a great deal of charm,” Tochler says, referring to the pioneers here.
According to conservation artist Buchenbacher, “There’s something very satisfying about being able to reveal these paintings, which belong to a mood we can’t really understand: a combination of European tradition with living in the Middle East.”
Now the new owners are renovating the building. To do so, conservation architect Nitza Metzger-Szmuk uses original sketches of the house, which are preserved in the municipal archives.
“We wouldn’t know what the original facade looked like without them,” she says. “The descendants of the building’s previous owners also have photographs.”
Metzger-Szmuk has run into a familiar problem – her desire to preserve all the spectacular murals and the new owners’ needs and demands. According to the conservation plan, she can’t force the owners to preserve the paintings, only those in the stairwell — a public space.
Metzger-Szmuk is trying to get the city to offer incentives to the new owners so they preserve all the murals. “We need cultural persuasion here,” she says.
US President Barack Obama will arrive in Israel this week, and between one important meeting and the next, he will also find the time to enjoy some music during his visit to President Shimon Peres’ official residence.
Two Israeli artists have been chosen to sing for Obama – Rita and David D’Or, who is quite experienced with such occasions after performing in front of the king of Thailand, the pope and former US President Bill Clinton. And yet D’Or finds it difficult to conceal his excitement.
This time I will also be thinking about David, the boy from Bat Yam who liked to sing so much, and about the fact that music and deep faith can lead us to unusual places,” says D’Or.
“I still get excited every time and don’t take anything for granted. This thought always helps me put things in the right perspective, knowing where I came from and maintaining the values I believe in.”
What was the first thing that came to mind when you received the news?
“That it would be a real privilege to sing at such an honorable occasion in front of world leaders who have made and are making history, our dear President Shimon Peres and President Obama.”
D’Or chose to sing “Amazing Grace,” a song deeply embedded in American culture, symbolizing the victory of spirit, freedom and equality.
“It’s way beyond a beautiful song and I hope to be able to convey its essence in a respectable and moving manner. The melody requires quite a difficult vocal ability, which motivated great singers like Whitney Houston, Beyoncé and even Susan Boyle to perform and record it.
“I want to present the song in a special which will not be similar to other performances. I performed the song in the past on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States, when I was invited by his son to an event in Harlem.”
How do you prepare for such a performance?
“I mainly focus on the song and the way it is presented. I can’t ignore the fact that this will the first time President Obama hears me sing, and I hope I am able to touch his heart.
“Beyond that, I prepare for this performance like I prepare for any other performance. I work with the musicians, I look for places in the song where I can express myself and my voice in a unique manner which will provide the performance with a personal meaning as well, hoping that it is engraved in people’s memory. At the same time, I take out the tuxedo reserved for such occasions.”
As far as D’Or is concerned, this week’s performance for Obama is a high point in his career, and rightfully so. “It’s clearly a sort of dream come true,” he says. “Performing on such an occasion with a historical significance is not an obvious thing. It’s a great privilege.”
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