Times of the Templars
Friday, April 27, 2001 -- IT'S difficult to equate the large sprawling metropolis that Haifa is today with the tiny cluster of houses round the seashore which made up the Templars' first settlement in the late 19th century. That earlier Haifa is now on show in a photographic exhibition at the newly opened City Museum in the heart of the German Colony.
Haifa was not the only settlement of the German Messianic Temple Society, but it was the largest. Others were established in Jaffa, Jerusalem, Sarony (now Hakirya in TA), Bethlehem Haglilit and in Wilhelmina (Bnei Atarot).
Writing about the Templars' history, Haifa Museums General Director, Nissim Tal focuses on the significance of their contribution to the development of modern Israel.
Though they started as farmers, the Templars were soon deterred by the harsh weather and soil conditions, and turned to industry. Their presence peaked at the beginning of World War I, because after that, dissent within their leadership caused the community to fragment.
Although later, there was much criticism of the Templars, and indeed those remaining were deported during the British Mandate because of the affiliation of some of them with the Nazi Party (they were later recompensed by the Israeli government), their influence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries cannot be minimized. They built roads and developed transportation systems which opened up the Carmel and Galilee for residences and tourism, established banks and a cement factory, opened stores and factories and spread culture by building a network of libraries.
IN recent years, though, the German Colony, with its rich Templar history, has been swallowed up in the commercial sprawl of downtown Haifa, hidden among the garages and small workshops. And the amazing architecture of that time has been spoiled by the appendages of rusty tin roofs and cracked plastic blinds which enclose many of the original beautiful balconies.
The surrounding area has also been developed beyond recognition and it is hard to imagine that Alice Oliphant painted a picture of the sea and the windmill at Bat Galim from her garden in the German Colony in the 1880s. Today, high-rise blocks and streets of shops and offices have destroyed that pastoral view and the only glimpse of the sea from the main road of the German Colony is the busy port with its cranes and industrial infrastructure.
BEFORE it was too late, the Haifa municipality decided to join forces with architects and artists to rescue and rehabilitate this historic neighborhood. The realization of this vision is the opening of the City Museum with its fascinating exhibition of pictures, titled Between the Mountain and the Sea, housed in the renovated Templars Community House in the heart of the colony.
The City Museum is part of the network of Haifa Municipal Museums. There have long been complaints that the museum has no central museum campus as in other large cities, but in recent years there has been some appreciation for the fact that each museum is housed in its own suitable building. For example, the Maritime Museum is adjacent to the sea shore. In some cases, however, this separation has sacrificed public access to valuable exhibits, one example being the closing of Struck House and the loss of a permanent home for the music and ethnology museums.
It is timely that the municipality has now called a halt to development in this most historic neighborhood of Haifa, the German Colony, and allowed us to experience the glories of its past.
THE Templars Community House had fallen into decay and posed quite a challenge to architect Dagan Mochly, who researched its history and preserved the personality and style of the building. Funding from Germany and from the Haifa Foundation made the Community House and its museum the focal point of the overall project which opens up the wide boulevard between the Bahai Gardens on the slopes of the Carmel down to the port.
The Bahai World Center, whose beautiful gardens and exquisite shrine and House of Justice have kept the Carmel green, has just completed landscaping with a magnificent flight of marble steps and terraced gardens starting from Panorama Rd at the top of the mountain and sweeping all the way down to Ben Gurion Blvd, the main street of the German Colony.
For some years past, families looking for unusual homes would buy and renovate the once glorious houses and gardens in the side streets of the Colony. The top end of the neighborhood borders on the old Christian quarter of Haifa but it takes some exploring to find the beautiful churches and European-type gardens in the square between Hagefen, Allenby and Ben Gurion Sts.
The first step in the renaissance of this neighborhood was to recruit a team of architects, each one a specialist in their his/her own field, to make an overall town plan to recreate the cobbled pavements and the old street lamps (albeit now electric).
And there under all the plaster and rusty metal emerged buildings of beautiful proportions, with ornamental balconies and arched windows and red tiled roofs.
Today, the street is clean and the lines of the sandstone-colored houses are restored. A few more trees and gardens, more galleries and tea-shops in the style of the period, and by summertime, this will be the perfect place to promenade. There is already a shopping precinct in the City Center, an amazing and beautiful structure quite unlike any of the other uniform shopping malls.
The odd scruffy yard and a cluster of machine workshops still exist though, in what was up to the early l970s the original Egged central bus station. What an opportunity to restore this old station and create a museum of bus transport, which will take us through the history of modern Israel!
This history is captured in pictures on display in the Templars Community House.
EVEN without the exhibition, it is hard not to be enraptured by the house itself. The first to be built in the Colony in 1869, the house has a main ground floor area which served as a meeting place and prayer hall, while the top floor housed a school later moved to an adjacent building, also in the process of being restored.
Architect Dagan Mochly quotes the "first commandment" of the ethics of conservation: to conserve the world's cultural heritage." He adds, "the duty of conserving this heritage applies to everybody everywhere and not just to a period of time or to a specific geographic area."
In this case, Mochly had the challenge of not just conserving this historic building but of changing its function from a prayer and meeting house to a museum. In the second stage, the house will be linked with the school which will house archives. There will also be underground parking.
The Templars period in Haifa was short and controversial. But their most memorable legacy is the beauty of their settlements and visitors to Haifa can now see a restoration which is especially precious in the light of today's high-rise building and industrial pollution.
City Museum, German Colony, Ben Gurion Blvd (opp.City Center) Haifa. For opening hours, Tel: Haifa Museum, 04-852-3255
©Copyright 2001, Jerusalem Post