It’s easy, when walking toward the beachfront entrance of the Sheraton Tel Aviv Hotel, to miss the two unassuming brass plaques that stand in front of the hotel.
Between the rolling blue waves of the Mediterranean, the rushing traffic of bustling HaYarkon Street and the gleaming revolving doors of the hotel itself, there is plenty to distract.
But for pedestrians who take a moment to pause, a unique morsel of Tel Aviv history awaits: On the site of what is now one of Tel Aviv’s most sleek and modern hotels once stood the Red House, an unassuming little structure that served as the situation room in the fight for Israeli independence.
David Ben-Gurion, the forefather of the State of Israel, commanded the very first brigade of the Israel Defense Forces from that red-painted building. After the State of Israel was established in 1948, the house even briefly functioned as the seat of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
But time moves fast, and Tel Aviv’s sparkling beachfront is valuable real estate. The Red House was soon demolished to make way for a hotel, which later, in the 1960s, became the first Sheraton hotel outside of North America.
But its legacy lives on, if in a surprising new location.
An Incubator of Ideas
That first red house was a tiny, rouge-colored building that defied the odds and served as an incubator for big ideas. And today in Tel Aviv, on the city’s southern fringes in the diverse neighborhood of Shapira, there’s another Red House that is welcoming dreamers and working, through art and intellect, to build a community from the ground up.
This Red House sits on Israel MiSalant Street, a quiet, lush side street a few minute’s walk from city’s sprawling Central Bus Station. One hundred years before David Ben-Gurion gathered his troops near the Tel Aviv beachfront, this Red House stood as the lone structure amid acres of fruit orchards, and villagers would walk for miles to draw water from its well.
The structure changed hands dozens of times over the centuries, and today its red paint is peeling a bit. But climb the stairs to its second-story entrance, where original Ottoman archways still let in a cool breeze and light pours over handpainted flagstone tiles, and you’ll find an art gallery, a community space and a good-vibes-only cultural center where everyone is welcome and history is being revived.
“We’re making a cultural center in the Shapira neighborhood of Tel Aviv, and what we’re trying to do, in the most optimistic way, is to use art and culture as a bridge between all the different communities we have in this neighborhood,” says Oren Fischer, the artist and entrepreneur who serves as the Red House’s community leader.
Shapira sits off the tourist track of Tel Aviv. Its residents are modest and working-class, and they fall all across the spectrum. There are African refugees in this neighborhood, Filipino day laborers, ultra-Orthodox religious families and young tattooed hipsters all crowded together. It’s a neighborhood with differences, Fischer says, and the Red House is a light-filled oasis of common ground.
Its central room serves as a gallery for rotating exhibits, and its smaller side rooms are rented to artists and organizations as studios and office space. A “how to make it in the art world” school, aptly named The Red School and focused on the business side of the creative process, is also operated in the evenings from within its walls.
Fischer points to his favorite example: Last month, 100 refugee artists living in the neighborhood saw their work exhibited on the Red House gallery walls, and locals — many of whom had never had a conversation with their African neighbors — gathered around the Red House’s ancient well, drank coffee and shared conversation.
“It was really inspiring,” Fischer says of the dialogue he watched unfold that evening. “And it’s so much more interesting than just showing an exhibition.”
Inclusion for Everyone
It’s specifically because of the Red House’s commitment to inclusion and community that photographer Itzik Mor selected the space for his first solo exhibition. Mor is a photographer whose work focuses on stark black-and-white images of landscapes and monuments. He grew up in Israel and returned to his native country six years ago after nearly a decade abroad.
At first, the loneliness ate at him. That sense of isolation can be felt in his photographs, and also in the manner in which they are presented at the Red House — no gallery notes, no helpful texts or panels to explain to viewers what they are looking at.
“Every piece is by itself, a monument in how it is presented,” he explains. “I was trying to evoke a feeling from the gut, to make it really minimalist and in your face.”
But as he worked with the Red House to hang his exhibition, the space itself started filling in the emptiness in his own life. The Red House, Mor says, gave him the community he needed as he replanted his roots at home.
“It’s an amazing space,” he says of the Red House. “I love the crew, and I also appreciate the concept — to create a community feeling here in Tel Aviv. This group here, they are making the community stronger.”