It is not every day that you get on a tour and the name of the tour guide is Karl. And certainly it is not every time that you hear that the name of Karl was given in sign of respect to no other but the Playboy King Charles (Carol) the 2nd of Romania. Well, king Carol was not exactly the savior of Jews that guide Karl thinks he was (the good deeds he was told about happened during the reign of his son Mihai and belonged actually to Queen Mother Elena, Carol’s divorcee) but it was a good story to start with the tour of the Tel Aviv’s historical central street, the Rothschild Boulevard. Many other stories followed, stories about the buildings, but especially about the people, the very special people who built and lived in this city.
start of the Rothschild Boulevard
The tour (paid for by my employer as art of the Cultural activities of the company) started at the West end extremity of the Rothschild boulevard, at the intersection with the Hertzl street, the very place at the crossroads where Tel Aviv started 101 years ago. It was actually The Crossroad, as the whole city of 294 inhabitants had only these two streets in the first years of its existence. There is little left today but memory of the beginnings, and a kiosk, the first of the series of many that are seeded on the green space that separates the two traffic lanes of the boulevard, and give a special look and style to the boulevard. Those were however built many decades after the city was founded. The French Institute is located today at the same intersection.
the Vogel House
Three ages of building, three different styles marked the first 30 years of the history of the city and of the Rothschild Boulevard. First came the Russians, and their building style is a witness to the slow adaptation of the immigrants coming to Turkish Palestine during the first alyot (waves of immigration). See the house of the Vogel family, close to the end of the street. Balconies, cellars, thick walls made of thermo-isolating bricks, were adapted better to protect the interior from the frozen Russian winter then from the torrid Middle Eastern summer. While the lower level is somehow functional hosting a music club, the upper store and the whole building waits for a renovation to help it survive the years to come.
in front of the Dizengoff House
Our next stop was at the house built by the legendary mayor of the city – Meir Dizengoff. The house became the first art museum of the city while Dizengoff was still alive, and here were hosted the first acquisitions of the fine collection which is time was to become the collection of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The building is however most famous for having hosted one of the crucial events of the modern history of Israel – the proclamation of the independence by David Ben Gurion on 15th of May 1948. It was a good opportunity for Karl to tell us a few more stories related to the historic event and more important or less important people who were involved in it.
the mayor Meir
Mayors nowadays ride Volvos, or maybe bicycles if they are of the modest kind. Meir Dizengoff used to ride a horse and a statue on the boulevard in front of his house remembers the times and the man.
the changing skyline
The landscape of the area is definitely changing at fast pace. While some of the older buildings enter renovation programs every space between the historical buildings and all the spaces behind them seem to have become construction sites. Skyscrapers are either ready, or in construction, or in planning. All big banks and insurance companies seem to build their headquarters here, if they are not already present on location. How much of the old city atmosphere will be preserved? Hard to say – what is sure is that in a few years this area will look completely different and what we saw during this June 2010 evening may be a snapshot of a fast changing reality.
the Shertok (Elyahu Golomb) House
The second style of building that left its print on the face of Tel Aviv and of its most significant street was the Polish style. It was during the 20th that the population of the city grew tenfold, while most of the immigrants came from Poland, rejected by the growing antisemitism and by the fiscal policies of the Polish government. Representative for the Polish style is the house known today as Beit Elyahu, hosting today the Haganah Museum with a special section dedicated to the founder of Haganah Elyahu Golomb. Actually the house belonged initially to the Shertok family, which later will give in Moshe Sharet the second Prime Minister of Israel. The two families were by the way related.
recovering the past
Many of the old buildings are in renovation, some other wait for the initiatives to recover and bring them back to the commercial and touristic circuit. One example of a project under way is the ‘eclectic’ building at the intersection of the boulevard with the Yavneh street, with its combination of Oriental arcades and Russian monastery dome.
the Levine House
The Levine House, also known by locals as the Russian Embassy is one example of such a project that was completed a few years ago. It really hosted the first embassy of the USSR in Israel at the start of the 50s, but later the house fell in neglect to be recuperated in the last decade and acquired and used until recently by Sotheby’s for auctions and exhibitions.
Bauhaus in Tel Aviv
Night had already fallen when we got to the area on the Rothschild boulevard which is dominated by the Bauhaus style of construction, the third classical style of the city and of the street, brought to Tel Aviv by the German Jews immigration wave of the 30s. Tel Aviv is one of the cities with the highest concentration of Bauhaus buildings worldwide and this area is the most representative. I respectfully disagree with the aesthetic opinion of Karl, our guide who considers the style as ‘ugly’ – I find it to be well fit to the dimensions and functionality of the Middle-Eastern cities, and something that is practical and functional cannot be too ugly.
What Karl does like and I do not disagree with him here is the eclectic style, and the tour ended a little bit aside the Rothschild boulevard, in the King Albert Square, where at the intersection of the Nahmani and Montefiore streets we can admire the Pagoda House. A combination of the Western and Oriental styles, the Pagoda House belongs nowadays to a mysterious Swedish millionaire and cannot be visited. It was built by a French architect named Alexander Levy who perished in the Holocaust.
nightlife on the Rothschild Boulevard
The night had fallen on the city during our tour, and the area became more and more populated. It is today one of the principal areas of entertainment in Tel Aviv, the city which represents better than any other city the Israeli culture and spirit, the tolerance and liberalism that was aimed to by the founders of the nation. While driving home we reached the other end of the Rothschild Boulevard, the location where soon the Habima theater will reopen after years of renovation work. The street and the area look different than the small pioneering street where the city started 101 years ago, but it certainly continues to stay in the center of the development and life of the new metropolis.