BEIRUT: Architectural gems of the Ottoman and French Mandate eras have increasingly lost the battle to age, neglect and gentrification in Lebanon’s capital – but one Ottoman house in Gemmayzeh has now been granted a second lease of life. “This project is important because there are not many of these houses left in Beirut,” architect Annabel Karim Kassar told The Daily Star. “It’s a priority for me to save it along with the heritage of the country.”
After several years of negotiation, Kassar and her husband, Radwan, have officially become the new owners of the former Tarazi house on the eastern end of Gemmayzeh’s Gouraud Street.
To preserve a piece of Beirut’s history, the couple plans to restore the Ottoman edifice – now named Beyt Kassar – back to its original splendor.
Kassar, who heads international architecture firm Annabel Karim Kassar and Associates, will be leading the restoration, alongside a team of local and international architects, engineers and conservators.
The projected two-and-a-half-year restoration will be the first of its kind for Kassar.
Her previous projects have included the design of the Beirut Souks cinema and ABC Dbayeh.
While these operations showcased the French architect’s contemporary flair, Kassar said the project will take her work in a completely different direction.
“I think as architects, it is a responsibility to engage with these types of initiatives. I’ve lived in two different houses nearby and I used to always look at how [the Tarazi house] was abandoned and neglected,” Kassar said. “For five years, I wondered about its history and what its fate would be.”
The decaying facade of the former Tarazi house takes up several meters of one of Gemmayzeh’s main arteries. The ground floor and the two levels above it were built by Andre Tarazi over several years, beginning in the late 1880s.
According to Camille Tarazi – a distant descendant of the building’s original owner – Andre was originally from Damascus. Both he and his brother Dmitri were known artisans selling oriental antiques and furniture in Beirut, Damascus and Jerusalem.
Having spent 22 years extensively researching the Tarazi family and their business, Camille published a book titled “Vitrine de l’Orient” – A Window to the East – in 2015.
Carole Tarazi, the wife of Andre's descendents added that he was known for editing post cards of Levantine landscapes.
Members of the Tarazi family inhabited the house in Gemmayzeh until the 1970s, before it passed into new hands.
Eventually, as issues regarding its ownership took precedence over necessary maintenance, the building was neglected and fell into disrepair.
According to Carole, the street level shops of the property were initially horse stables which later turned into weaving workshops. More recently, the property housed a grocery store and a florist, but these businesses have long since closed.
Their boarded-up entrances have since been repurposed as billboards, festooned with fliers for nightclubs, events and parties happening around the city.
The history contained in the rooms above is concealed from unassuming pedestrians walking up and down bustling Gemmayzeh.
While the first floor of the house was more recently renovated and occupied by tenants, the second floor has remained untouched for years.
Despite the relentless wearing of time to the aging structure, the intricate detailing in the ceilings and windows are redolent of a decadent past.
In one room, an arrestingly colorful Baghdadi ceiling is an enduring example of the Tarazi’s oriental flourishes. The details, fiercely Ottoman, are a stark contrast to modern Beirut’s fast-paced everyday life, which can be seen and heard from the windows.
On a recent afternoon, Nehmat Alameh – an architect on the project – slowly strolled through the rooms with her chin tilted upward to contemplate the ceilings.
Walking through the archways separating the rooms, she noted the exquisite details still preserved in the degenerating edifice. “When we stepped in for the first time, we couldn’t get enough of it. It’s so beautiful,” she said.
Alameh pointed out how rare this type of intervention was in Lebanon.
“There are few conservation architects in Lebanon, and even fewer conservation contractors,” Alameh told The Daily Star.
“It’s a battle between people who are passionate about preserving heritage versus contractors who see how lucrative it is to tear down a building to make new apartments,” she said. “When money is involved, everyone becomes blinded.”
Unfortunately for the public, Beyt Kassar’s transformation will be in the service of converting the property into a private residence for the architect and her family. Nonetheless, the team hopes to engage the public in the restoration process; an event is set to take place in a year’s time to showcase the progress of the renovation works.
Kassar said the shuttered storefronts on the ground floor will eventually be made into exhibition spaces. For the time being, the Kassars have used them to display photos of the restoration process.
Camille Tarazi, the descendant of the original owner, had words of praise for the initiative.
“I think that their method and scientific approach is the right one to restore old houses,” she said. “It’s very useful and enlightening.”
This article was amended on Tuesday, June 06 2017
A version of this article appeared in The Daily Star on May 29. A clarificiation was made on the years which the Tarazi family lived in the house.
A second clarification was made on June 6 on the Tarazi family history.