Villa Mokbel: New Hope for Beirut’s Forgotten Architectural Jewel | Features
Beirut, Lebanon – With its grand mansions and palaces dating back to the Ottoman era, Beirut’s historic Sursock Street in the heart of the Achrafieh district – filled with pockets of green space, winding streets and small restaurants – is a magnet for architecture and heritage lovers.
Most people know the stunning stained glass windows of the Sursock Museum and the magnificent plaster ceilings of the Sursock Palace, buildings that are located opposite each other. These were the homes of the aristocratic Sursock family, wealthy merchants with political ties to the Ottoman Empire, who were among the seven founding families of Beirut.
However, there is a lesser-known historical gem on the same street.
The slate-blue Villa Mokbel, a former estate in Sursock dating back to 1870, is located behind iron gates covered with plants, and is rarely seen by the public – although a compelling photo of the ruined villa taken after the 2020 port explosion, with a fresco overlooking… Through a collapsing wall, she raised her status dramatically.
The explosion occurred when 2,750 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate caught fire, killing 218 people, injuring 7,000 and displacing about 300,000 people. The explosion was the third largest in history after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and its full force engulfed Villa Mokbel.
“The Sursock properties were the first large, beautiful villas on the outskirts of Beirut,” villa owner Georgie Mokbel, who inherited the property from his father, tells Al Jazeera. “They brought in architects from Italy who worked with craftsmen from Lebanon to create this unique Venetian-Florentine style, with a few Ottoman influences.”
Mokbel adds that architects of Lebanese homes being built or renovated in Gemmayzeh and Almarai, down the hill from the wealthier Achrafieh district, have begun to imitate this style on a smaller scale, but with triple-portioned windows and red roof tiles. “Before this period, there were no roof tiles used in Lebanon. Now, this mixture of Ottoman, Lebanese and Italian architecture is considered the model house.
Still great after all these years
The villa that became known as Villa Mokbel was first owned by Alexander Sursock. In the 1930s, the Alexander family branch left Lebanon, married into one of the Italian royal families, and the villa was put up for sale.
The palatial 2,000-square-meter (21,527-square-foot) mansion was purchased by several families and, at some point (it is not known when), was divided into smaller apartments. Mokbel’s grandfather, Gebran Mokbel, a construction worker turned real estate businessman, was one of those investors. He bought shares in the villa, considering its luxurious halls an attractive investment.
Spread over three stunning floors, the villa features ornate doors, triple arches and sweeping marble staircases, with gold leaf detailing on the intricate ceilings and a gilded oval glass dome above the staircase. The soaring ceiling and large windows flood the grand main halls with light, giving them an open-air feel. Although the palace is in dire need of repair – the roofs need to be restored and the balconies and walls need to be rebuilt – it still bears the grandeur and beauty of its glory days.
In particular, Georgi Mokbel loves the exquisite details in the plaster ceilings and coffered ornaments in many of the rooms, which contain symbols and scenes that refer to their original functions. Classic images of fruit, wheat husks, and cornucopia adorn the dining room, while the entertainment rooms feature gilded musical instruments.
Over the years, the villa has witnessed major parties. The Sursock family’s bourgeois status and political affiliations meant that they often hosted foreign dignitaries, royalty and Lebanon’s high society. It later served as a filming location for Italian director Nino Zancin’s 1969 film, Appointment in Beirut, and served as a school. But now, it sits empty.
Scars of civil war
The villa also bore the scars of Beirut’s 1975-1990 civil war – a bloody conflict between sectarian militias that killed around 150,000 people – as well as other conflicts. Most notably, the palace was torn apart in the port explosion on August 4, 2020; Its stone walls crumbled and its ornate ceilings collapsed.
Many had their first look at the villa after a photo by photographer Diaa Murad, published in Vanity Fair magazine, captured a mural of the famous Lebanese poet and writer Khalil Gibran visible through the collapsed walls. Gibran’s sad and solemn look as he stared outward embodied the devastation felt by many, as if he too was mourning the state of Beirut.
The villa’s uses outside of luxury accommodation date back to World War II. At that time, the state of Lebanon asked the villa owners for permission to store grain in the villa’s basement, “because they were afraid of starvation, as happened in World War I,” Mokbel says.
Between 1915 and 1918, the Great Famine in Mount Lebanon led to the death of 200,000 people. Allied forces were blockading the eastern Mediterranean to weaken the Ottoman economy and war effort, which sided with Germany and Austria-Hungary. The famine, exacerbated by the commander of the Ottoman Empire’s Fourth Army, Jemal Pasha, withholding crops from neighboring Syria in response to an Allied blockade, and a locust plague, became one of Lebanon’s darkest moments.
When the Ottoman Empire collapsed shortly after World War I, Lebanon fell under the control of the French Mandate in 1923, before gaining independence in 1943, midway through World War II. The newly formed government was anxious to avoid a repeat of past events and attempted to take precautions against starvation in the event of a blockade. In 1945, Lebanon joined the Allied war efforts against Germany and Japan.
It was agreed that grain would be stored in the villa for this time and purpose only – the house was empty as several owners cut their losses and sold their shares. However, the government eventually converted the villa into a school for under-18s in the early 1950s, and did not leave the building until 2000, after Mokbel’s family “forced them out in court,” he explains.
By that point, Mokbel’s uncles and father had bought out the rest of the families with the aim of renovating the palace. The heritage buildings were gaining popularity due to their nostalgic charm, and the family wanted to preserve this wonderful example of Lebanon’s history. “We renamed it Villa Mokbel,” he says.
But the building, suffering from six decades of minimal maintenance by the government, was in “terrible condition,” he says. The Mokbel family made some superficial repairs to make the place functional and usable again – patching holes left by the war, adding a new coat of plaster and paint – but a complete historic restoration was a long way off.
Villa Mokbel was then rented to the oldest business school in Lebanon, Baiji University, for a few years. Needing funds for repairs, the family chose to convert the villa into a commercial venture, allowing part of the rent to be transferred back to repair costs. However, the 2006 war with Israel put an end to both the rental and other restoration plans as the villa again suffered damage and the school searched for a new home in the Hamra area.
In 2008, communications company MC Saatchi discovered and fell in love with the villa, offering to completely restore it for a reduced rent. Within three years, the palace was restored to its former glory and the company remained a tenant until the 2020 port explosion forced it to leave.
“A symbol of Beirut’s golden age”
Three years after the explosion, Villa Mokbel is once again in dire need of repair. Mokbel says it was not eligible for aid, unlike some other damaged buildings in Beirut, because it is “private property,” adding that they “received a little help” from a local NGO, the Beirut Heritage Initiative.
At the same time, Mokbel opened the villa’s doors to visitors, hoping to spark interest from companies wanting to renovate it for use as a boutique hotel, restaurant or venue for parties and other events. He says: “Restoring such a place is a huge cost,” and it is a cost that requires a lot of materials and specialized techniques needed to restore heritage buildings.
In March 2024, We DesignBeirut, a new design fair for local crafts and talent, will use the villa – “an icon of Beirut’s golden age” – as the setting for one of its main showcases, featuring local and international designers under the banner of preservation. One of the pieces, an intricate tapestry that mimics the villa’s triple windows and ornate balcony, will be hung in place of the missing walls and windows.
In its celebration of Lebanese heritage, craftsmanship and architecture, the exhibition may also help spread awareness about the plight of Villa Mokbel.
“We chose this beautiful villa for the exhibition to give them some support, because they couldn’t get anything from NGOs,” Mariana Wehbe, co-founder of We Design Bureau, tells Al Jazeera. “The villa will be presented as a living space and will be able to tell its own story as much as the design pieces on display,” she adds. “A lot of people didn’t even know this place existed, so it’s great to let people actually see it and who knows what might come of it.”
Until someone sees a more permanent future for Villa Mokbel, it remains in limbo. The family repairs as much as they can, while seeking help from new sources. Mokbel remains optimistic that someone will appreciate the architectural and historical significance of this historic mansion and want to help.
Beirut is full of abandoned heritage buildings that are on the verge of collapse. After the Civil War, the owners did not have the funds to restore such places and they were left to rot. In the post-war period in the 1990s, many of them were demolished to sell land to property developers – a cheaper option than restoration.
The struggle to preserve palaces like the Villa from such a fate is a family mission across generations.
“My grandfather and father always dreamed of living in this place, but they never did,” Mokbel says. “But still, I think it’s important to keep this house alive in any way possible. It’s a great honor to protect and preserve this piece of heritage. As a family, we believe that old houses have a history and an identity, a certain charm, that holds great value.”
“People’s mentality is also changing about old houses – they are more interested in them now than they were 20 to 30 years ago, and they see the value in them. The person who takes them has to love them too.
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