Almost a century ago, the British made a decision that would determine the look of Jerusalem until this day. Construction, said the officials from London who then controlled the city, must take place almost exclusively in Jerusalem stone.
The rule survived the shift in Jerusalem from British rule to Israeli rule, and now the pale stone is synonymous with the holy city, and often used in Judaica as a symbol of Jerusalem.
But when residents or people establishing a second home in Jerusalem decide to build or renovate a Jerusalem home, it limits the choice of designs and styles available. “The Jerusalem municipality is very strict on building and restoration, so many people feel ‘we can’t express ourselves in Jerusalem,’” said Chezi Spero, creative director at Jerusalem Design, which provides architecture, design and project management services.
However, Spero says that people shouldn’t feel unable to make a home their own because of the Jerusalem building regulations. In his view, the rich history and the diverse population of the city provide lots of ideas to give homes individual character, despite the mandated conformity of their exteriors.
The smallest of touches can personalize an exterior without going against the grain of the stone with its imposing past. Hand-painted gold leaf on a porch, for example, “changes the whole story” and creates a homey and a historic feel at once. City gardens, complete with outdoor furniture, also provide the opportunity to put a personal stamp on the exterior.
But possibly the most exciting opportunity for diaspora buyers in Jerusalem is the chance to design the interior, especially since many of them, until this point, have been used to staying in hotels when visiting Israel. “People feel that when they come to a hotel it’s hard to personalize the experience,” Spero said. “But when people have a home here they can say, for example, ‘I loved the vibe of walking on the floor of Jerusalem’s Roman Cardo when I visited here as a child,’ and you can give them an echo of that Cardo floor in their bedroom.
A Jerusalem Design living room with decidedly modern touches.
“This way they have captured a part of Israel that they love in their own home.”
Many of Spero’s clients feel their homes in Israel are “an extension of themselves, and to much of the diaspora Jewry this is a definite way for them to express themselves.”
When it comes to interiors, people should dial up or down the historical or history-inspired features as they see fit, Spero said.
Some people, especially when choosing homes in the Old City or the nearby neighborhood of Yemin Moshe, like to opt for bright colors and natural stones. They fit well with the surroundings — narrow alleyways and arches — and also the architecture that tends to include domed ceilings.
Other people say, “I want a Jerusalem feel but I want to feel it’s 2016,” he said. “For them there is the option of a large, open plan instead of very clean lines and concrete as you may have in other cities. In Jerusalem people go for tiles in sandy colors.”
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Spero’s company mostly works in Jerusalem, but also takes on projects elsewhere in Israel where very different architectural visions can take off. “You may show me a picture of a beautiful ranch house from Tuscany, but I’ll tell people that won’t work in Jerusalem, where there wouldn’t be enough land around it.” However, up north and down south ranch-style homes can work.
Tel Aviv is dominated by Bauhaus architecture, and a home in the beach-house style could look out of place, but can fit well in a quieter coastal city like Herzliya.
Jerusalem Design’s services, aside from building plans and interior design, include selecting and managing contractors, working with suppliers, coordinating schedules, and supervising the quality of the work. Spero notes that there can be a cultural gap between standards of work expected in the U.S. and in Israel, and one of his company’s priorities is to set clear expectations with contractors and check work carefully. One of his sayings is that “not everyone can afford high end but everyone deserves quality.”
Wherever in the world clients are, they can log on to its Project Tracker, an online portal that tells them, in English if requested, exactly what work has been taking place and what money has been spent.
“Even if you have people with serious money,” Spero said, “today they want to know where it is going.” ◆