Flourishing Jerusalem Architecture During the British Mandate Period
Updated: Jul 20
I recently decided to devote three articles to the history of architectural activity in Israel’s capital. The first article discussed architecture at the end of the Ottoman Empire. Today, we will focus on the British Mandate period.
From December 1917 until 1948, the British ruled over Palestine and created strict zoning laws regulating Jerusalem construction. One British municipal ordinance that is still in effect today and has greatly influenced the character of Jerusalem architecture is the requirement that all new buildings have stone exteriors.
Let’s discuss the architecture in three neighborhoods built during the British Mandate and focus on three unique buildings from that era.
Established in 1922, Rechavia received its name from Judge Gad Frumkin, a resident who explained that "G-d will expand our borders" (rachav in Hebrew means wide). Richard Kaufmann, a Jewish architect from Germany, modeled the prestigious community after the garden cities of Europe, offering each family its own individual house and garden. There was a strong emphasis on International Style, which was the forerunner of Modernist architecture. One example of International Style was Bauhaus-inspired architecture, based on functionality, clean lines and no unnecessary decorations.
Literally "House of the Vineyard" (derived from Jeremiah 6:1), Beit Hakerem was another Richard Kaufmann-designed garden suburb of Jerusalem. The price of a plot in Beit Hakerem was about one tenth of Rechavia; accordingly, it attracted many writers, teachers and other white-collar workers. Established in 1924, Beit Hakerem’s predominant housing style was similar to Rechavia, with a strong emphasis on functionality and unadorned facades.
Established in 1924, Talbieh, and neighboring Katamon, Abu Tor and Baka, were affluent neighborhoods initially inhabited mostly by Christian Arabs. The houses boasted large lush gardens. Eclectic architectural elements graced the homes, including Renaissance, Moorish and Arab motifs and Armenian ceramic decorations.
Distinctive Buildings of the Era
The Palace Hotel
Located near the Old City at the bottom of Agron Street, the Palace Hotel was developed in 1929 at the urging of the Supreme Muslim Council to showcase Arab culture. The hotel was one of the most luxurious buildings in Jerusalem, and it displayed a mix of Greco-Roman, Renaissance, Gothic, Romanesque, neo-Moorish and Mamluk elements.
Spiraling upkeep costs caused the Palace Hotel to close; it then served as British administrative and military offices and, after 1948, housed Israel’s Ministry of Industry and Trade for many years. After falling into disrepair, the property was purchased by the Reichmann family and was rebuilt as a five-star Waldorf Astoria hotel and condominiums, retaining much of its original architectural refinements.
The King David Hotel
The King David Hotel was opened in 1931. Swiss interior decorator Hofschmidt was charged with the mandate of creating an atmosphere suggestive of the time of King David, with a high-ceilinged, marble-floored lobby, and Egyptian, Assyrian, Hittite, Phoenician and Greek motifs in public areas.
Toward the end of the British mandate, the hotel’s southern wing served as the British administrative and military center. In July 1946, a bomb was placed there by a member of the Etzel (Irgun Tzva’i Le’umi) movement. The Etzel’s phone call warning the British to evacuate the building went unheeded, and 91 people were killed when the entire southern wing was destroyed. After Jerusalem was reunited in 1967, the hotel was renovated and expanded.
The YMCA Building
What do Manhattan’s Empire State Building and the YMCA building in Jerusalem have in common? Each was the tallest structure in its city at the time of completion, and both were designed by architect Arthur Louis Harmon.
Completed in 1933, the YMCA building is a combination of Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic and neo-Moorish architecture. Its goal was to evoke early architectural traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and to serve as a symbol of peace. The foundation contains stones from quarries believed to have been used in the construction of the Second Temple; the Christian element is the Romanesque and Gothic styles, exemplified by the vaulted ceilings in the main lounge; and a large dome and painted decorations in the entrance hall are Islamic characteristics.
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