Say Amen to This Historic Convent-to-Hotel Conversion
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
The Jaffa is a tranquil, stylish oasis amid the busy streets of a port like no other on the Mediterranean.
By Mehul Srivastava
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As you walk from the bustling streets into the cool, minimalist lobby of the Jaffa hotel, you are confronted with a Damien Hirst painting, some chic Shiro Kuramata sofas and the remnants of an ancient curved stone wall. In a project that has taken nearly a quarter of a century, this luxurious hotel has been carved out from an old convent and hospital that stood on the site since the 1880s, but the wall — built by 13th-century Crusaders — is a striking reminder that this is ground steeped in far older history.
For two millennia, Jaffa’s port was the gate to Palestine, changing hands between Saladin, the Crusaders led by Richard the Lionheart, the Mamelukes, the Ottomans, the British and, finally, Israel, which gained control of the once Arab-majority town in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The resulting riot of architectural and commercial exuberance has created a port like no other on the Mediterranean, home to Tel Aviv’s hippest young residents. A decade of gentrification has led to art studios, boutique bakeries, and a pedestrian promenade lined with yachts and apartments with stellar views.
The Jaffa, in contrast, has a more tranquil feel. Originally home to the nuns of the Sisterhood of St. Joseph (a French order) and a hospital for ill pilgrims, the building’s facade gives little clue to what lies within — a sprawling courtyard shaded by mulberry trees, a swimming pool, and an obscenely beautiful nightclub and events space housed in the desanctified chapel. The hotel itself has 120 rooms — 40 in the renovated old wing and 80 in a newly built wing, some with sea views.
A careful excavation revealed one of the only ancient circular walls in the Middle East.
The project’s architect, Ramy Gill, who grew up in Jaffa, explains how he worked to preserve the original architectural elements. While excavating thousands upon thousands of truckloads of earth, he tried to “echo the geometry of the alleyways around us,” while exposing the foundations of the building to create more space. A careful excavation revealed one of the only ancient circular walls in the Middle East and fourth-century architectural artifacts. New floors were dug out, with the courtyard for a restaurant and the swimming pool sunk below the surrounding street level on the spot where the nuns once grew Jaffa oranges.
While Gill was digging, owner Aby Rosen, a Manhattan-based developer to whom the Sisterhood granted a 110-year lease of the land, was luring celebrated British architectural designer John Pawson to join the project. Pawson quickly realized that while he would have free rein to exert his signature minimalist style in the new wing, he would have to be more flexible elsewhere. Israeli hotels often have a rather flashy, conspicuous side to them, and Pawson admitted to having to put his foot down to make sure the design remained restrained. “Some people think a wall is something to hang pictures on,” he says, when pushed for an example. Perforated metal screens that recall Arab wood-carved moucharabies are all that adorn many of the walls.
Earlier in the day, Gill showed me the most spectacular part of the renovation, the chapel, with its striking powder-blue vaulted ceiling and stunning stained-glass windows. All the Christian icons have been removed (and replaced with posters of famous film stars as priests). Its marbled floors show off three-legged Botolo chairs, and a giant bar stands where the altar once did. Waitresses wear outfits resembling a nun’s habit except that theirs end above the knee.
Later I found long queues for the club (note to guests staying in a $1,600-per-night junior suite: That’s not enough to get you on the guest list) and took a walk around Jaffa. It was late, but the streets were still full, with people spilling out of restaurants and into bars. Around the corner from the hotel, in a tiny bar filled with off-duty waiters, salsa blasted from the speakers and couples danced on a floor smaller than my suite’s bedroom. The bartender handed me a free shot.
It was a reminder that in the heart of the old port, colorful and riotous, the Jaffa is a rarefied addition, an oasis from the city outside, while still being deeply entwined with its history: an expensive but delightful escape.
Mehul Srivastava was a guest of the Jaffa, which has double rooms from $550. Access to the chapel is free for guests, but they must email to reserve in advance.
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