BEIRUT (AFP) — The Ottoman-style mansions, with Venetian windows, arches and lavish gardens that once epitomised Beirut are being levelled one after the other as high-rises mushroom across the capital.
"Now everyone is looking for towers, because they realise that above the tenth floor you can see the sea," says Mona Hallak, an architect and an activist with the Association for the Protection of Sites and Old Buildings.
"In 20 years' time, this won't be the case because you will have lots of towers everywhere."
As a result, landlords are rushing to take advantage of the high prices now being offered for the land on which their ancestral homes are sitting.
The pattern is set: the home is demolished, its traditional garden destroyed and the land sold and developed.
"Every time an old house goes, a green pocket goes and with it go trees that are often hundreds of years old," says Hallak.
"It's not only the house. It's the tree. It's the bird that follows the tree. It's the quality of life."
The only law on the books that protects old homes in Lebanon dates back to 1933 when the country was under French mandate. It mainly protects buildings constructed before 1700 although younger buildings can be placed on the list of protected sites either by government directive or private initiative.
"The law basically focuses on the protection of archaeology and antiquities," Culture Minister Tarek Mitri told AFP.
A survey commissioned by the government in 1997 identified about 250 buildings in Beirut that cannot be demolished.
"The list is outdated now," Mitri said. "Plus it was done hastily. Some buildings that should be on it aren't."
The list is of little consolation to activists like Hallak, who say the issue is more about preserving the country's heritage than merely saving a building or a mansion.
"It's important to save an entire street, what we call a cluster... there is a social structure that is completely tied to these buildings," Hallak says.
"We need a modern law that will allow us the flexibility to preserve these buildings."
The relatively new and trendy Saifi village in downtown Beirut is made up of urban-style apartment buildings painted in pastel colours constructed with the flare of old Beirut.
"It simulates an old lifestyle. But when you go there... it is empty. The shops are trendy. You won't find the interaction of a real old city," says Hallak.
Traditional Beirut neighbourhoods tended to have a local market, butcher, bakery and shops that made hand-made goods. Most of those neighbourhoods are gone.
One neighbourhood that has managed to preserve its architectural heritage, though not its traditional character is Gemmayzeh, located near the downtown area. While the three- and four-storey buildings have not been demolished, they have been transformed and their lower floors now house restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
Some old stores, however, still sprinkle the area.
"We wanted to turn it into another Montmartre where it would be a nice quiet neighbourhood with cafes," said Joseph Raidy, who heads the Association for the Development of Gemmayzeh. He was referring to the Parisian district known to be a gathering place for artists.
"But it has become something else," he added, referring to the nightlife now emblematic of the area.
Gemmayzeh also boasts some of Beirut's most magnificent mansions owned by the Sursock family. The Sursock Museum was once a private home built in 1912 and now is host to an impressive permanent art collection.
The house had a splendid garden that kept it apart from its closest neighbour, also another Sursock mansion.
But recently the garden was razed to allow for the construction of a 25-storey apartment block that will stand between the two mansions.
"It was a massacre... a huge crime," Raidy says. "The garden had trees that were 40 metres (130 feet) high."
A resident of the area, who gave his name only as Maroun, bemoaned the demise of the garden.
"It makes you want to cry... it was the biggest, most beautiful garden in the area.
"There was a tree that was like 2000 years old. You would need four or five people to be able to wrap their arms around it."
Raidy says despite promises from the municipality that they would not allow the Sursock garden to be destroyed, it happened.
"In Lebanon, it's about connections and who you know," he says, referring to the wheeling and dealing that pervades in the country.
Jihad Khiyyami, an engineer on the project ironically named the "Park", says he understands the owner's decision to develop the land.
"It was an empty plot of land and the area's zoning allowed for it to be developed. There was high demand, so they went forth with the project," says Khiyyami, who adds that all the apartments have already been sold.
"If you want to solve this problem, people have to get money with a capital M," says Hallak.
The culture minister agrees.
"You have to give landlords incentives. They should not be punished for owning an old house," says Mitri.
Mitri has proposed a law that would give owners of old buildings exemptions on taxes and registration fees. Though the law has passed in the Council of Ministers, it requires a parliamentary vote to be ratified.
Lebanon's parliament has not met in regular session for over 18 months due to a political crisis that paralysed the institution.
Susan Hamza who lived in a mansion originally built in the 1930s says they had tried their best to preserve the house when the family decided to sell.
"We wrote letters to Arab princes explaining its history and even suggesting turning it in to a textile museum," Hamza says.
They never got any response.
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