No one seems to question the historical and architectural importance of Bosel House, a spacious, eight-dunam compound in a green forest at the entrance to Safed. It is a splendid building in a European-Arab style, an important icon of the glory days of modern architecture in Israel. Bosel House has been at the center of an endless correspondence - for years - between the authorities, the forces for preservation and the owners. There have been big plans for it, for a student dormitory complex and for a luxury hotel for Kabbala-loving tourists, but it always falls between the cracks.
Part of Bosel House has become a popular events venue while the condition of its other part (or what remains of it ) is degenerating. And all of this right under the authorities' open eyes. The main building was erected in 1904 and served as a hospital run by the London Jews Society. The hospital, built of chiseled limestone, had quadrangular windows and an arched lintel, combining local Arab building traditions and European motifs. Verandas on the main facade overlooked the view, and an ornate cornice held a large clock. The building provided medical care to Jews and Arabs until the outbreak of World War I and the expulsion of the missionaries. The Turkish army confiscated the place, but the missionaries returned after the Turks' surrender in 1917.
Under the British Mandate, the place became a hostel for Christian Arab refugees and then a Scottish mission high school called the Scottish College. With the outbreak of the Arab Revolt in 1936, the college moved to Haifa, and the building reverted to the British army.
In 1942, Bosel House was sold to the Histadrut labor federation's health organization, Kupat Holim Clalit, which wanted to make it into a sanatorium cum health resort named after Yosef Bosel, one of the founders of Kibbutz Degania, who drowned in the Sea of Galilee.
The health resorts were the Histadrut's most lavish public buildings. Even in times of austerity, considerable resources were devoted to them. In the first two decades after the establishment of the state there was a frenzy of building health resorts at scenic locations in the center of the country and the north (at that time the south was not perceived as a destination conducive to health ). Bosel House, too, was given a sizable extension.
At the end of the 1950s the Histadrut recruited architect Yacov Rechter to plan a wing of bedrooms and an improved dining hall for Bosel House. Rechter, his father, Ze'ev Rechter, and partner Moshe Zarchi, designed a total of four health resorts - Ma'aleh Hahamisha (1947 ); Sprinzak in Nazareth (1961 ); Bosel House (1962 ); and Mivtachim in Zikhron Yaakov (1968 ). All were masterpieces of modern Israeli architecture.
Rechter had to integrate his design with the existing construction. As an intentional modernist statement he chose exposed concrete and decidedly geometric shapes to contrast the new against the old. The dining hall is a pentagonal space raised on concrete pillars to expand the area of the facades and "immersing" the building in the landscape. Beneath the dining hall, on the pillars level, he built an open theater overlooking the hills and forest. He covered the back of the dining hall, a two-story rectangle, in local pebbles and glass for a correspondence with the British mission's building.
The bedroom wing Rechter built shortly after the dining hall manifests a new language of breaking down an architectural object into units with an identity. The 30 rooms (with en suite bathrooms ) stand along a split-level corridor and are entered via staircases.
Bosel House was a great success but the 1980s saw a decline of the Histadrut's power and changes in vacation culture. Activity dwindled. For about a year and a half, it served as an absorption hostel for Ethiopian immigrants and then was rented to ultra-Orthodox organizations.
In 1984, it was shut. Kupat Holim Clalit put up a for sale sign. All the Histadrut health resorts have long ceased to function as such.
The Bosel House compound is now owned by Safed businessman Moshe Hadif, who operates a typical events venue with stone flooring, chairs covered in white cloth and artificial fountains. The handsome concrete facades of the dining hall have been ruined and covered in stone and not a trace of the original interior decoration remains. The bedroom wing stands abandoned, its concrete slabs have begun to crack and crumble. The lovely network of paths Rechter planned between the old and the new buildings is hardly visible.
Meir Hadif, the owner's brother who manages the events hall, says he knows there are preservations plans, that he is "preserving these buildings by the skin of my teeth." He has installed a fence and a gate to prevent vehicles from using the open spaces as a parking lot. "I have put up signs saying not to get close to the buildings. All kinds of parasites used to come and steal stones from here."
Finding a suitable preservation model
Uri Ben-Zioni, director of the northern district at the Society for Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites, says Bosel House has been discussed for years with no progress. The main obstacle: Safed, a town with a rich and varied architectural heritage, has no preservation plan.
Ben-Zioni says the new mayor wants to move ahead but doesn't necessarily have the tools. "I think it's necessary to find a preservation model suitable for Bosel House and Safed as a whole. I am trying to arouse awareness of the issue at the grass-roots level as well through people in the city who care about preservation. We have taken the preservation list from the municipality and we want to update it and submit something organized so the authorities will not be able to say the town has no preservation plan."
Another idea is to make Bosel House (and other abandoned health resorts ) into resorts again, for affordable vacations for people who aren't able to pay hundreds of shekels for a hotel inside Israel or abroad.
The tourism, absorption and interior ministries could purchase the places, develop a subsidy mechanism and offer packages to the self-employed, manpower agencies and housewives as well, to encourage domestic tourism and preserve cultural values that were an important part of the Israeli narrative until about 20 years ago. If not at the initiative of the Histadrut, or what remains of it, then at the initiative of the government of Israel.