The Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem is a study in contrasts. It is both the oldest and the newest luxury hotel in the city. It has a traditional Islamic façade, yet the most modern and green amenities and infrastructure.
Situated in the heart of Jerusalem, the hotel is a five-minute walk from the historic Old City walls. Built as the Palace Hotel in 1929 by the Supreme Muslim Council headed by the Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini, a supporter of Adolf Hitler and a Nazi collaborator during World War II, it is now owned by the Canadian-Jewish Reichmann family and is managed by the Hilton chain.
Today’s hotel, renovated and designed by the Israeli firm Feigin Architects and opened in April 2014, preserves the ornate limestone facade, with its rows of arched windows and floral and geometric carvings. Although the entrance of the formerly L-shaped building has been moved from the apex of the right angle to the building’s eastern side, the original, dramatic Art Deco entrance rotunda has been faithfully reconstructed. An octagonal skylight bathes the rotunda in daylight and a sweeping double staircase has intricately patterned iron balustrades.
The new hotel, reported to have cost $200 million, is one of the most challenging conservation projects ever undertaken in Israel, according to architect Yoel Feigin. “Never before has a complex and stylized stone façade been conserved, and a basement constructed under it,” he said in an e-mail interview.
The new elements are as dramatic as the reconstructed ones. A four-story atrium lobby runs the length of the structure, connecting the original building and a new, set-back, eight-story wing that increases the number of rooms from 100 to 226. The atrium has a retractable glass ceiling and beige limestone walls; with arches framing the entrances to the rooms and iron-filigree lamps reminiscent of old street lamps, it is reminiscent of an outdoor café in an old Jerusalem neighborhood. And indeed, guests can order coffee or dine in the lobby.
The hotel’s interior design, by Turkish architect Sinan Kafadar, has a Levantine opulence, with lavish rugs and ceilings with hand-painted geometric designs. An adjacent building, Jerusalem’s old Customs House, which was not slated for preservation, was demolished to create a wing of luxury condos whose owners receive services from the hotel.
The original, four-story Palace Hotel was designed by the Turkish architects Ahmet Kemaleddin and Mehmed Nihad and Jerusalem architect Rushdi Husseini, a relative of the mufti (the contractors oddly included two Jews and an Arab). At the time, it was the city’s only hotel to have central heating, elevators, and private bathrooms (in 45 of its rooms). According to architect David Kroyanker, an expert on Jerusalem’s architectural history, it was one of the grandest buildings erected in the city during the period of the British Mandate (1922-1948).
Above the original entrance is a large stone tablet inscribed with the Arabic words: “We are building as our fathers built and act as they act.” This quotation, Kroyanker said in a telephone interview, shows that al-Husseini and the Supreme Muslim Council wanted to prove that “they could build something that was no less splendid and impressive than what their forefathers—the Mameluks—had built.”
And they were able to complete the construction in just 11 months, with the help of skilled stonemasons from Egypt. On the basis of old photographs, however, Kroyanker said the project apparently ran out of funds: The interior had nowhere near the opulence of the façade. And in 1931, when a new luxury hotel, the King David, opened just two blocks away, the Palace Hotel could not compete, Kroyanker said. Although the mufti envisioned a role for the hotel in connection with an Islamic university that was to have been built across the street (on an ancient Muslim cemetery), the Palace Hotel closed its doors in 1935 and then housed offices, a radio station, and a small hospital. In its last incarnation, it was home to Israel’s Industry, Trade, and Labor Ministry.
Kroyanker takes credit for the idea of restoring the building to its original function and glory. In 1980 he created the first plan, and in 1995 he revised it to include the luxury condos, which, he said, made the “fantastically expensive” project financially viable. This plan was the basis for the current design.