American Univesity of Beirut

AUBNI celebrates Gholam heritage cluster rehabilitation success

​​​Safa Jafari Safa, Office of Communications,​​​​​

The AUB Neighborhood Initiative (AUBNI) celebrated the completed restoration of the Gholam heritage cluster in Mar Mikhail. The cluster is composed of two buildings on a heritage public stairs in the Akkaoui area that displays three centuries of Beirut's architecture. It was badly damaged by the August 2020 blast in the port of Beirut that lies only 200 meters away.

With a strong belief in the role that built heritage plays in preserving the identity of Beirut, the AUBNI works for the promotion of the Ras Beirut neighborhood's livability and vitality through innovative outreach activities and multidisciplinary research. Many projects involve the few remaining heritage buildings in the neighborhood to highlight their importance and lobby for their preservation.

After the Beirut blast, AUBNI partnered with Nusaned, a humanitarian, community-based, and volunteer organization, and worked to assess damage and conduct repairs in both the immediate Ras Beirut area as well as the more affected Mar Mikhail and Karantina areas, providing aid to residents as well. Upon request from residents, AUBNI —with raised funds and direct contribution from Nusaned's donors, Save Beirut Old Houses initiative, and Arcenciel—embarked on a mission to restore and document the two architectural heritage model buildings (lots 1137 and 474 Rmeil) that were inhabited by the extended Gholam family.

The Gholam heritage cluster includes a four-floor building that started as street-level sandstone cross-vaulted shops on Gouraud Street built by the great grandfather of the Gholam family in 1874 during the time of the Ottoman Empire, and a small late-19th century red-tile roofed house behind it. The cluster holds the memory and history of the city and represents its architectural, urban, and social development.

The restoration was carried out by specialized contractors, CTI (lot 1137) and District Solutions (lot 474), following the highest standards and painstaking methods for the restoration of heritage buildings, in full coordination with the Directorate General of Antiquities (DGA), and under weekly supervision by the AUBNI and Nusaned team.

Commissioned by AUBNI, Naji Assi Architects team considered this an opportunity to study and dissect the different building materials and techniques that demonstrate the transition in architectural practice in middle class Beirut from the 1840s to the 1930s. Different floors could be traced back to different eras, beginning from Ottoman times. One could see red-tile roofs, sandstone walls, cross vaults, triple arches, center halls, wooden roofs and high ceilings, as well as a more modern collection of concrete columns, brick walls, and lower concrete ceilings. An analysis of the architecture could indicate the social dynamics, building practices, and economic growth of the Gholam family, apartment dwellers and shop keepers, and general life in Beirut over time.

Joined by cheering residents of Mar Mikhail, the Gholam family, partners, donors, volunteers and Judge Marwan Abboud, governor of Beirut, AUBNI and Nusaned visited two apartments in the two restored buildings and met with resettling residents to celebrate their return. A detailed presentation of the project followed at Mayrig restaurant with an exhibition of the façade restoration process by photographer Dia Mrad.

“This rehabilitation is an act of resilience against gentrification and real estate speculation that has - over the last three decades - changed the character of Beirut and destroyed its architectural identity, in the absence of any heritage preservation law," said Mona El Hallak, director of the AUBNI, who spoke about the historical and architectural significance of the cluster. “Sharing the oral history and architectural research will contribute to an inclusive and sustainable approach to heritage preservation, highlighting its role in keeping alive the collective memory and identity of our city."

“Our contribution to the rehabilitation of the built heritage of Beirut aims to work at the cluster and neighborhood scales, to restore not only the buildings but also the socio-economic and cultural fabric of the city," said Mrs. Ghaida Nawwam, Nusaned co-founder and president who spoke about the NGO's projects in the area post-blast. The event also included a technical presentation by Charbel Tawil, shelter project manager at Nusaned, about the restoration work at the Gholam cluster.

Despite the damage, the Gholam family did not give away these buildings to interested developers with lucrative offers. They insisted to continue the legacy of living in them and keep history alive. The heritage buildings that speak of Beirut's history have been preserved, and the work that began in September 2020 and was completed in July 2021 will allow their original residents, five Gholam families, to come back home, bringing life and hope back to the neighborhood.


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