Undoing Centuries of History and Heritage: The Fate of a Beirut Monument

The metropolis of Hamra in the heart of Beirut tucks a tome of history in its streets. A venture down any of its narrow, one-way lanes is a passage back in time to when Beirut was lush with unspoiled verdure, when vistas of the sea could be had unobstructed from any perch, and when the city was a shopping hub and cinema destination.

Today Hamra is divided in more ways than one. It is cosmopolitan, packing in refugees from Syria and expats from every corner of the globe. It straddles the old and the new, with quaint box homes dating back centuries nestled between commercial and residential high-rises. And its demographic makeup is polarized, with college students and octogenarians comprising the bulk of the population.

Such are the colors that paint Hamra and give it a unique identity unlike any other Beiruti bastion. Some love it, while others detest it, but one thing’s certain: it is a cornerstore of Lebanese history, and we ought to preserve its fabric.

The Red House

So when my dear friend Paola Rebeiz relayed to me that her family’s ancestral home in the heart of Hamra was being framed for demolition, I grew furious. Dubbed The Red House in a nod to its crimson wooden shutters and shingles, it was originally built in the 18th century and enlarged in the 20th century to its present state. A stone’s throw from the American University of Beirut, it attracts notice from passersby as a beckoning oasis in the midst of a concrete jungle.

The current inhabitant is Samir Rebeiz, whose grandmother Samira Rebeiz was a prominent social and political figure in the early years of Lebanon’s independence. Samir is an architect and, rather ironically, a preservationist. He advocates to preserve architecturally and historically significant buildings from demolition or degradation, but today he finds himself the object of the very melancholic eventualities he works hard to prevent.

Here are some photographs capturing the serene aura where Samir resides:

The Red House sits on the corner of Abdel Aziz and Nassab streets

It is dwarfed by its high-rising neighbors (photo credit: Noura & Myra Saad)

Meet the neighbors

Fountain in the garden

The garden from above

Lush verdure

Beautiful interior architecture

There seems to be a bit of controversy surrounding the campaign to safeguard The Red House (see here and here). One relative who left Lebanon decades ago claims Samir is squatting on land at pre-war rent rates, which are notoriously dirt cheap. She is adamant about his eviction.

Whether or not her allegations are true or relevant, the fact remains that Samir invested his own means in restoring The Red House to its pristine state, and he figures into its rich history as much as the century-old garden that animates its soil. He’s been served a notice to vacate the premises by January 22 and is readily complying with the letter of the law. 

But that doesn’t reverse the fact that the home is due to be levelled to a pile of rubble, when instead it could serve as a museum or heritage sight.

What can we do to thwart such a sad outcome? 

Representatives of the family have launched a Facebook Page encouraging people with any memories of The Red House to document their experiences. These anecdotes will weigh in as evidence that the building is historic and shouldn’t meet its destructive end.

You can also reach out to the Directorate General of Antiquities Rony Araygi on his Twitter account and petition to keep The Red House.

Join the Rebeiz family in salvaging an extraordinary landmark, one that’s survived centuries of sunny days, strife, and irreverent urbanization. Let’s not lose Hamra’s ruby refuge. 

Packing to leave (photo credit: Noura & Myra Saad)

Unless otherwise noted, photos were taken by Paola Rebeiz


Popular posts from this blog

A Crowning Iftar Experience at the Crowne Plaza Beirut

What’s New In & Around Beirut

Tantalizing Treats from the Coast to the Mountains