I recently got a peak inside the Grand Theatre, one of the last remaining relics of pre-war Beirut.
Today the theater is surrounded by the refurbished structures of the BCD (Beirut Central District): a multi-billion dollar private construction project that has turned the oldest part of the Lebanese capital into a posh shopping and restaurant district.
But 15 years after reconstruction began, the Grand Theatre remains gutted and abandoned.
Although it’s exterior has been restored to resemble the sandblasted look of the new neighborhood, the theater’s interior tells the story of Lebanon’s painful civil war as well as its fabled pre-war glory. The building is said to date back to the 1930s.
The company at helm of the BCD project (known as Solidere) has fenced off the theater building for years, with forever delayed plans, according to some, to turn it into a boutique hotel. But on a sunny afternoon, I managed to sneak across the barricades in the hope of documenting this gem of the old city before it meets the unknown fate of ‘rebuilding’ crews and their hotel-obsessed investment firms.
My excursion began at the outer construction wall–errected by Solidere years ago to promote the BCD project by evoking the rebirth of downtown’s landmarks.
Once inside, all was eerily quiet. I had the strange feeling of entering forbidden territory, frozen in the past and deliberately hidden from public view.
I came around the side to the front gate:
Upon entering, I looked up to discover the remains of a colored glass ceiling:
Then I came upon what appeared to be a central chamber:
Suddenly the stage stood before me:
I was amazed to find the old curtains largely in tact. Below the stage, it seemed Solidere crews had reinforced the foundation:
The central pillars had also been reinforced, although these renovation works did not look fresh; they may have occurred years ago at the outset of the BCD project in the mid 1990s or thereabouts:
It’s interesting to note the vintage blue paint–I’ve seen this before in many of Beirut’s old buildings. Perhaps the color was in vogue prior to the start of the war in 1975.
It’s also interesting to note the old murals and graffiti, left by militias and perhaps even invading armies who laid claim to the theater space at one time or another:
Most intriguing though, was a large image painted on the wall facing the main stage:
It looked like a disappointed angel of sorts.
Here’s an unobstructed, albeit blurrier view, showing both wings:
What’s also fascinating about old Beirut buildings is the surviving signage. Here are a few shots from the shops that occupied the theater’s ground level facing the street (now the construction wall).
This seemed to be some sort of restaurant or bar:
Notice the funky vintage roof:
Then I found all the old theater chairs stacked up in one of the ground floor shops:
The last thing I’ll point out is the sidewalk.
Upon closer view, it’s actually made up of fitted glass pieces that were once transparent.
I’m not sure what this style is called but I’ve seen it in Manhattan as well, along some of the sidewalks of older buildings.
Before leaving the Grand Theatre, I took one last look at the new city beyond its fabricated walls:
I wonder how long it will be before the Grand Theater is also ‘cleansed’ of its troubled past.
At least some of those memories seem to be captured by the Lebanese director Omar Naim, in the 1999 film “Grand Theater: A Tale of Beirut”, which I’ve just discovered online.
I’m eager to see a copy if anyone knows how to obtain one.
A couple of years after I posted this, the film was uploaded online. It’s a very moving portrayal with great historical details:
UPDATE 2 (8/24/19):
The building behind the Grand Theatre, which had a similar look and was built during the same period, connected to it through a covered sidewalk, has been demolished (see post). Soldiere claims it will be rebuilt but the plot remains empty today, almost a decade later.