Grand Sofar Hotel: A case for preservation

Grand Sofar Hotel: A case for preservation

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At a time when so many historic sites are being demolished in Lebanon, it’s refreshing to see that some in the country are also interested in preserving the past, and seeing a value in that.

Just last week I reported on the removal of an ancient Roman city wall in favor of a real estate project in Bachoura, Beirut– one among countless historic sites have been erased in the country in favor of Dubai-like prefabricated towers. But it is important to note that there are also rare victories for preservation and perceptions are changing about the value of historical spaces.

Take the current exhibition being held in the Grand Sofar Hotel, built in the late 1800s in the mountains above Beirut and once one of the most celebrated hotels in the Middle East. It was abandoned in the 1970s during the Lebanese war and probably occupied by various armed groups including the Syrian military.

But thanks to the art work of Tom Young, the hotel has welcomed guests for the first time in decades, as part of his latest residency.

As he has done before with projects like the Rose House (covered in this previous post) and Beit Boustani, Young spends several months or even years at a decaying and often threatened building, excavating its history and drawing paintings that are both conceptual and realistic, to convey an interpretation of a place’s past.

Tom often uses souvenirs or relics found in the buildings to help tell the story and frame the art. The Grand Sofar was also famous for its casino, where prime ministers, Kings, and spies probably tried their luck.

An old roulette table where the good times must have once rolled:

Often the pieces are paired with art and historical textual references. “I do not deny that I was fascinated by my first sight of this strange invention,” wrote the Lebanese novelist Ameen Rihani in his 1910 short story The Heart of Lebanon. “I considered myself lucky to have reached my long sought objective, which was to see the roulette,” he added in reference to the Sofar Casino, according to a caption prepared by Young.

In the kitchen, Young used old photographs to paint the chefs:

There is even an ancient kitchen elevator machine that looks like it may have been one of the first of its kind:

Old photographs of the former natural landscape around the hotel (now lined with houses and buildings) and old guest books are also on display:

A broken down piano:

Revived with new music during the opening night:

An ancient fridge, or was it an “ice box”?

But sometimes it is the items that are not on display, not part of the exhibition, that give additional meaning to the building’s story. Check out these vintage stickers, from old shops in Lebanon. Where these stuck up on the walls by the wartime militiamen, trying to making the place more homey?

Did they desire a more glamorous life than shooting at snipers?

There is even a homage to the 1980s hit Knight Ridder and its leading man, David Hasselhoff.

Photo: Tom Young

Meanwhile the hotel’s famous night club “Monkey Bar” may have seen better days:

But it’s brought back to life with an old Middle East Airlines advertisement:

And the revelatory scenes are recast by both Tom’s imagination and records of famous guests like legendary singers Oum Kulthum, Farid el Atrash and Asmahan.

I won’t spoil it all. There are dozens of more paintings and historical pieces to see, including memorabilia and portraits from the old trains that used to whisk guests to the hotel, photographs and records of famous patrons and politicians who frequented the place and more information about the owners from the super affluent Sursouk family.  (There are rumors that the family plan to reopen the hotel, perhaps as a cultural space.)

And needless to say, the backdrops are almost as rich as the installations.

Best of all, the exhibit is totally FREE and there are even occasional shuttle buses available. It’s open every day from 11AM-7PM except Mondays and runs until October 14th. 

There are also performances and events for children. For more info on Tom’s work and the show visit his website. Here is a video of the Hotel Sofar event, as well as one of his previous projects, Beit Boustani.

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