One Woman's Fight to Preserve Beirut's Architectural Heritage

During the reconstruction phase that followed the Lebanese civil war, many important buildings were torn down. Conservationists were, however, able to save a number of individual structures. One of the most important of these buildings is the so-called "Yellow House". Martina Sabra reports

​​ Anyone walking through the reconstructed city centre of Beirut to the SODECO shopping centre can easily overlook the valuable old structures that line the street. One of the city's most important architectural cultural monuments, the so-called "Yellow House", which once belonged to the Barakat family, is closed to the public and largely boarded up.

Yet the City of Beirut has big plans for this Art Nouveau building, which is steeped in history: the intention is that by 2012, it will house the first Beirut museum of municipal history, the "Bait Al-Madina" (City House).

Lavish parties and diplomats

The heavily damaged structure looks back on a glittering history. Since being built by the famous Lebanese architect Youssef Aftimos in the 1920s, generations of well-to-do, upper-class Beirut families have worked, lived and loved in this house. Lavish parties were held inside its walls and prominent local politicians and international diplomats passed through its doors.

In the early days of the civil war, in 1975, the "Yellow House" increasingly became a site of armed conflict due to its strategically important position on the front line between East and West Beirut. Snipers occupied the house, from where they could monitor entire streets and districts of the city. By the time the war ended in 1989, the fabric of the building had been severely damaged by countless gun battles.

Turning back the clock

That the house wasn't torn down is due to the tenacity and dedication of the Beirut architect Mona Hallak. In 1994, she began investigating the house during one of her expeditions with the APSAD, an independent organisation for the protection of historic monuments and buildings. "People were afraid to enter the house because of the possibility of unexploded bombs or mines," recalls Hallak.

​​ "But I just had to go in. It was unbelievably fascinating, mainly because it looked as if the inhabitants had just left a few hours previously." Hallak pulls a few large photos from her bag: "Look at this," she says. "One of the flat owners was a dentist. His dentist's chair was still in its place when I entered the house. It was covered with a thick layer of dust, but it was still working. His cupboard drawers contained personal letters from prominent Lebanese politicians."

Unusual rescue operation

Despite its cultural and historical importance, the Barakat house was almost demolished several times in the 1990s. In 1997, Mona Hallak managed to prevent its demolition at the last minute. While workers were already busy ripping out the valuable tiled floors, Hallak started an unusual rescue operation. She collected signatures, wrote petitions to parliament and the city administration, and mobilized support both locally and internationally. She was finally able to convince the powers that be.

In the summer of 2003, the Lebanese government decreed that the building be signed over to the City of Beirut and transformed into a museum. Nevertheless, general political insecurity and bureaucratic and financial obstacles delayed the project.

Non-transparent awarding of contracts

Now the City of Beirut has launched a new initiative. The City of Paris has pledged both financial aid and support in terms of the presentation of content. An exhibition with the most important findings from the building has been organized and a conference is to be held in September 2009 to allow the public to get involved in the debate about the content of the new museum.

Moreover, after much to-ing and fro-ing, an architectural company has been commissioned to restore and rebuild the Barakat house. Mona Hallak, however, was not entirely happy with the procedure. "The selection was not made in a competition; it was a random decision." Despite this quiet criticism, however, Hallak says that she is glad the house is being preserved for the general public.

A museum of municipal history for Beirut

According to the current schedule, the Beirut museum of municipal history is to open its doors to the public in the year 2012. It is still unclear as to which role the civil war will play in the content of the museum's displays. A few politicians would prefer to leave the subject well and truly alone.

Others consider it the most natural thing in the world for the 15-year collective trauma that saw hundreds of thousands die and the old quarter of Beirut almost razed to the ground to be reflected in a museum of municipal history.

Whatever happens, Mona Hallak will remain closely involved, if only to ensure that the renovation of the building will not cover up the traces of the civil war, but retain them in an appropriate manner.

Martina Sabra

© 2009 Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2009


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