The Drisco Bothers’ Legacy
On September 22, 1866, during the Ottoman rule of Palestine, a group of 40 American families from Maine arrived at the port of Jaffa, at the behest of George J. Adams, a self-proclaimed prophet and founder of the New England Church of the Messiah. Among these pilgrims were two brothers, John and George Drisco, who decided to build a hotel in Tel Aviv, Israel, just outside Jaffa's walls, unlike their fellow colonists who turned to farming. Unfortunately, the brothers exhausted their financial resources in just a few years and were forced to sell the hotel to Ernst Hardegg, a German Templar hotelier who completed the building. Sir Hardegg maintained a balance between the original American structure—the building is one of a very few in Israel to have an attic, an American architectural practice—while adding European elements of luxury and grandeur like delicate hand-painted accents on the lobby walls. He named it the Jerusalem Hotel because it primarily served as a rest stop for those landing in the Port of Jaffa on their way to Jerusalem. Between 1870 and 1940, the Jerusalem Hotel was renowned in the region and frequented by guests including Thomas Cook and Mark Twain. But in 1940, the British seized the property, turning it into a military headquarters before giving it to a Swiss hotel management company. By the 1960s, the building was abandoned, its illustrious past long forgotten.
Restoring A Faded Glory
In 2006, the landmarked building was purchased by Avi Zak, who began a lengthy reconstruction process, focusing on the restoration and preservation of the original architecture. A staircase was discovered, but due to its poor condition the restoration team decided to cover it with transparent glass, allowing guests to see the original features but still climb the stairs safely. The attic rooms are now luxurious suites, designed in a contemporary fashion with Turkish and European influences to hark back to the building's history. And, most distinctive, are the original painted borders and murals from the 1860s that were uncovered along the entrance walls, lobby, and in the cellar, which was used as a Munich-style alehouse in the Jerusalem Hotel's heyday. The murals faded and disappeared when the property shut down but a comprehensive rediscovery and restoration of the artwork was a significant part of the building’s restoration, carefully performed by the artists of Studio Tchelet. Interestingly, some of the faded paintings have been left so guests can understand the restorer's work. The entrance of the hotel maintains original text on the arch: a blessing in German to visitors.
Completing the historic homage to the hotel is its restaurant, Zada. The space, which features restored wall and ceiling paintings from what was the Hotel Jerusalem's alehouse, serves food inspired by the cuisine of the 19th century Ottoman Empire—when the hotel was originally erected. It is the Sultan's grand table specifically that is the inspiration for the restaurant's cuisine, which was meticulously researched by executive chef, Shahar Bitton, for a full year. His favorite ingredients include locally sourced herbs, citrus, olive oil, lamb, and seafood. One of his most successful dishes? Calamari stuffed with shrimp and rice. The menu offers a contemporary and sustainable interpretation of those unique Ottoman dishes, cooked in traditional clay pots in a stone oven, as was the custom during the time of the Sultan's grand table.