Beirut – Just off Beirut’s bustling Hamra Street, the unassuming two-storey building with weather-stained walls and scarlet shutters known as the Red House is dwarfed by a forest of modern tower blocks.
It may not look like much from the outside, but the Red House is one of the oldest in the Ras Beirut neighbourhood, built by the influential Rebeiz family in the late 1700s. Over the years, it has hosted some of the country’s most important political figures and a few celebrities, including jazz musician Louis Armstrong.
Today, the Red House is one of the last traditional villas in Hamra, but its existence has come under threat in recent months after the home’s current owners, descendants of the Rebeiz family, requested a demolition permit. A subsequent campaign to save the Red House ended successfully last month, when Lebanon’s culture minister declined to grant the permit. Still, heritage activists worry that more battles may lie ahead.
“The Red House is safe for now, [but] it is not classified in any way,” said architect and urban planner Antoine Atallah, a member of the NGO Save Beirut Heritage. “It is not on the inventory of historic buildings, and the owners could use certain legal channels which could break the ministry’s decision and give them the right to demolish the house.”
Paola Rebeiz, who spent much of her childhood in the Red House but is not among its current owners, told Al Jazeera that it had previously been a meeting place for many of the men who would go on to establish and rule over an independent Lebanon.
“The seeds of independence were sown in this house,” Rebeiz said. “It was easier to visit the house… than to meet somewhere else, because if you had 10 men meeting publicly [it would attract unwanted attention].”
The Pink House, in nearby Manara, was also the subject of a huge publicity campaign after it was opened to the public for the first time last year, during an exhibition by British artist Tom Young. Built in 1882 on a hillside overlooking the Corniche, the Ottoman villa has long been a landmark in Beirut.
After it was purchased several years ago by a prominent local property developer, some speculated that it would be razed to make way for a lucrative new high-rise.
Although the developer, Hisham Jaroudi, has rejected such speculation and instead cited plans to restore the Pink House – which has hosted a variety of guests over the centuries, from former French President Charles de Gaulle to American abstract artist John Ferren – restorations have yet to begin, and the property is degenerating further by the day.
The fight to save such prominent old homes has underscored the ongoing threats faced by many of Beirut’s old buildings, from the lack of legal protection for post-17th-century architecture, to old rent laws that encourage landlords to demolish, to zoning laws that cater to developers rather than private owners.
Atallah says Lebanon’s old rent laws are a major factor in the city’s swiftly disappearing heritage. Properties rented before 1992 remain subject to strict rent controls, protecting long-term tenants from price increases.
A controversial new law, introduced in 2014, will gradually raise rental prices in Beirut to market value – a move that rights groups fear will abolish diversity and drive poorer residents from their homes. While Atallah has reservations about the new law, he says the old rent system is untenable.
I think these buildings play a very important part in our unconscious and the way that we read a city.
“It is certainly advantageous to renters who would never have the means to pay rent at the current rates in Beirut, but at the same time it’s unjust to the owners, and since they do not get much money out of their properties, they don’t invest in them,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Often they become damaged over time, which makes it easier to ask for demolition … The only thing that can force a tenant out is if the owner requests a demolition permit, and this is why many owners go to this extreme.”
In addition, laws relating to the protection of architectural heritage in Lebanon apply solely to buildings dating from before the 18th century, excluding Beirut’s Ottoman and French mandate-era architecture. This means that even when a demolition permit is refused, it is possible for the building’s owners to contest the decision.
“They go to the shura council and complain that their demolition permit was unlawfully refused, and since there is no law that allows for a refusal of the demolition permit, then very often the Ministry of Culture’s decision is overturned and the demolition is allowed,” Atallah said.
Compounding such problems, a law passed in 2004 loosened restrictions on the height of buildings in crowded neighbourhoods, leading to soaring land prices and further incentivising property owners to demolish old buildings and sell their plots to developers.
Owners have been known to damage their own properties in the dead of night in the hope of obtaining a demolition permit. The problem has become so acute that Save Beirut Heritage has set up a 24-hour emergency line so that anyone who witnesses a property being damaged can report it immediately.
Atallah says Beirut needs a master plan with a clear vision for the city’s future development, including provisions for safeguarding heritage zones. Minister of Culture Raymond Araygi told Al Jazeera that while many post-17th-century buildings are of great importance, not all would have the same architectural value.
“But if there are a lot of old buildings within a concentrated area, then they could be of general interest because they constitute a memory of the city and its social fabric,” Araygi said, noting that the government recently finalised a draft law that would include measures to protect such buildings.
“We are reviewing it and will send it to the other relevant ministries, like the Ministry of Public Works and the Municipality of Beirut and the Muhafiz of Beirut, to get their opinions before sending it to the council of ministers.”
Young, the artist who recently exhibited his work inspired by the Pink House in London, believes that Beirut’s old mansions should also be accessible to the public.
“I think these buildings play a very important part in our unconscious and the way that we read a city,” he told Al Jazeera. “If single developers choose to knock them down because they want to make money for themselves and their families, it’s really very irresponsible … They really belong to the people, and the people who financially own them are sort of custodians – that’s what I believe.”