Beirut Heritage – Ottoman building illegally destroyed

(The Daily Star, October 13, 2010)

An illegal demolition in the heart of the historic Gemmazyeh quarter took place late on Sunday evening, heritage activists claimed.

One side of a 19th Century Ottoman building now rests in ruins, putting the future of the house in further jeopardy and sparking fears that it will be raised to make way for another sky-rise development, placing additional pressure on residents to sell up.

Investors, who recently purchased the building, claim that it collapsed spontaneously over the weekend because of the heavy rain.

The nature of the damage, however, indicates that the house was purposefully torn down in violation of municipal regulations and without the prior knowledge of the Culture Ministry, which must approve all new demolition work.

“It is clear from the way that the ruins were demolished that it was man made,” said national heritage architect, Mazen Haidar, who inspected the site on Monday. “It has been knocked down in a way that would allow tiles and rocks to be reused.”

“It is simply not possible that the rain caused damage like this,” he said. “The house was in good condition and structurally solid. This is vandalism, pure and simple, there is no other way to describe it.”

The house had been cordoned off in blue plastic for some time and was reported to be undergoing renovation work. However, loud noise in the days before the weekend’s rain showers first alarmed residents that larger scale work may be happening at the site, several neighbors told The Daily Star.

When the covering was removed on Monday, residents first caught sight of the large scale damage and alerted activists. Neighbors also reported seeing construction workers removing the marble tiles and other household features, which now rest next to the building, scattered amongst metal tools and other equipment.

“This is typical, people pretend to preserve a house, but they intentionally destroy a part of it and use this as a prelude to knocking down the whole thing,” said Giorgio Tarraf, a founding member of Save Beirut Heritage, the conservation movement spearheading the campaign to preserve historic buildings. “They did this to my grandmother’s house, they have done this all over historic parts of Beirut and they did this to the Tripoli’s Anja Theater.”

Culture Ministry representatives have inspected the site and are looking into the accusations but would not comment until conducting further evaluations.