Architecture & Design: Plenty of room at the inn

Millions of people will head for Bethlehem at the Millennium. And accommodation won't be a problem. By Nonie Niesewand
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The Independent Culture
A former Hizbollah HQ at the birthplace of Christ will be occupied by tourists in king-sized suites, when the new Jasser Palace Hotel opens in time for the Millennium celebrations. Not many towns started their tourist drive with a rave review in the Gospels.

Bethlehem expects over five million tourists in the year 2000. In time- honoured tradition, they will celebrate three Christmases in Manger Square: on December 25, when Western Christians observe the Gregorian calendar; on January 5, when the Orthodox Christians look to the Julian calendar; and on January 19, when the Assyrians get to open their presents.

In common with all the territory west of Jordan not occupied by Israel, Bethlehem was annexed to the Kingdom of Jordan after the Second World War. Cut off from the Mediterranean and with tourist access only via Amman, tourism took a nose-dive. Although the town is only a kilometre from Jerusalem, visitors needed a passport to move between the two, and cars with the blue Bethlehem number plate could not leave the city. All this will change next May, when Bethlehem will come under Palestinian rule. Tourism is top of the agenda.

Yasser Arafat heads Bethlehem 2000, an ambitious project which aims to transform the not-so-little town of Bethlehem. Its skyline - largely unchanged for centuries, with its towers and belfries, domes and spires, red-tiled monasteries and convents above steep, higgledy-piggledy streets - is about to get a facelift.

Markets will be torn down and rebuilt. Street elevations will be restored, and Nativity Square is being pedestrianised and will acquire a new bus station.

And Bethlehem is to get a five star hotel. The Jasser Palace, with 250 bedrooms and king-sized suites, will open at the end of next year. Jordanian investors are bankrolling the $25m project.

The Jasser Palace is being carefully crafted around an extraordinary family home, built in 1914 when Bethlehem was a quiet, mainly Arab-Christian, town within the Ottoman empire. A sugary cubed and cupolaed mini-Versailles, the Jasser Palace was built in pink and white Jerusalem stone, by a French architect, for a Christian trader. Sulaiman Jasser's name is still a flourish on the ornate gates.

Jasser was the Mayor of Bethlehem in the 1920s, before losing everything in the stockmarket crash of 1929, but his name is still synonymous with handouts he gave to the poor and needy, and the fountain from which locals drew water. A phrase that apparently still has street-cred in Bethlehem is: "Where is the next meal coming from? At the Jasser." This optimistic expression has been written into the brief for the team of international consultants, to remind them to go back to the Jasser Palace roots in reinventing the family house as a hotel, and to overlook its more troubled recent history.

It has been an HQ for Hizbollah before the PLO occupied it, a hospital and a school. Papering over its history has been avoided by the hotel design consultants, Hirsch Bedner Associates. Hirsch Bedner are the hotel haute couturiers who pioneered that luxurious, glam-chic LA look of the Beverly Hills Hotel in California, with stretch-limo sofas and capacious club chairs, huge potted palms and great forests of uplighters, pilasters and fluted columns, more marble than the Taj Mahal and gilding to dazzle.

"I knew we had to tell a story in Bethlehem if we weren't just to be another five-star hotel. This one had to be different, to have a larger sense of its own importance," Alex Kravetz of HBA says. Rather than give the hotel a bland and international make-over, the 34-year-old London- based Russian, who trained as a set designer with the Royal Shakespeare Company, took the down-at -heel palace and glorified it.

"Just like every job we do, we have to reflect the location," Alex says. The feel of the family home is evoked with fragrant, cedar wood-scented cupboards, Lebanese type chairs with inlaid mother-of-pearl marquetry, carved screens that cast patterns on to the floor, stained-glass windows, brass Persian candelabras and mosaic-topped tables. Unlined colourful banners at the window, rather than formal drapes, and big carved rosewood chests grace the vaulted rooms.

Alex Kravetz describes the house style as "eclectic, transitional, classical and contemporary". Now that the phrase "very Arab" has become synonymous in the West with OTT opulence, this skilful interpretation of the past, matching the contemporary needs of a modern hotel, has been sensitively done. Some of the flourishes are positively Biblical - like the wall in the Cellar restaurant, made out of stacked local terracotta pots, unchanged since the time when Christ turned water into wine.

This exercise in understanding Palestinian style, and making it internationally chic, depends on buying in old family antiques for a touch of authenticity, using photographic archives to restore features such as deep-set niches, and commissioning local stone masons, carvers in lace-wood and birds-eye maple, weavers and potters. Using local sources brings down costs and creates work. It also maintains the atmosphere of a family home.

From a distance, the Jasser Palace resembles a set from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Up close, it is strong, unpretentious and well- proportioned. Its imposing entrance has strangely twisting stairs in cafe au lait stone.

Inlaid in the floor at the threshold is the Nativity Star, carved in hard pink stone, a favourite motif in Bethlehem. On either side of the entrance are salons, one furnished by the Jassers in "Louis-the-something" for a French look, and the other in Arabic style, a distinction that the hotel will maintain.

The house, which is really only a tiny part of the gigantic hotel project, has been restored as the main entrance lobby with reception areas, a basement restaurant and a top-floor restaurant.

Simeon Halstead, the British architect based with Arcadia in Spain, seamlessly uses the same Jerusalem stone, arched and vaulted, for the new guest bedroom bays in garden wings. Olive trees in the courtyard, which have been there since the Nativity, will be flanked by palms winched in by California-based landscapers, Site Concepts.

And not even the legendary Star of Wonder in Bethlehem can out-sparkle the lighting scheme for this courtyard and the outdoor pool by Sally Storey of Lighting Design International in London. Indoors, she balances Persian candelabras with halogen and fibre-optics, hidden in thick windowsills and vaulted ceilings. Outdoors, she has created pools of light in pergolas all along the new construction.

"A lot of the hotel work was driven by political constraints," Kravetz explains. "Every item that we don't get from Palestine has to be imported through Israel, which has encouraged me to source locally for accessories."

Stencilled on the Jasser Palace plans, which the designers first drew up last July, is the old Hebrew name for Bethlehem, "Beit Lehem", Hebrew for "House of Bread". In Arabic it is "Bayt Lahim", meaning "House of Meat".

Not to be outdone on the Millennium tourist drive to the Holy Land, the Israelis are busy marketing Nazareth 2000.