A former workers’ rest house overlooking the Mediterranean finds new life as a retreat saturated with culture.
In the charming town of Zichron Ya’akov, Israel, the Elma Arts Complex Luxury Hotel sits among the peaks of Mount Carmel. An hour’s drive north of Tel Aviv, it offers stunning views of verdant fields and the Mediterranean Sea. Some savvy visitors head here to bask in the Tuscan-like atmosphere of courtyard cafés, others to steep in early Zionist history. To this already fertile ground, the Elma – short for “Elstein Music and Art” – adds a cultural wellspring.
The hotel boasts over 500 works of art from the collection of owner Lily Elstein, a prominent Tel Aviv matron of the arts. Paintings and sculptures appear throughout the main building’s 51 rooms, the galleries and the art library. “Guests feel that they’re staying in artistic surroundings,” she says. “It’s a place where those who enter its doors can find art in every corner and at every moment.” Visitors’ first glimpse of the interior is dominated by Thirst, a colossal stone sculpture carved from 26 tons of marble by Israeli artist Sigalit Landau. Even the reception desk has been shaped to look like a black grand piano.
The building – a former workers’ rest house designed in 1968 by Yaakov Rechter – is remarkable, especially among brutalist icons, for its undulating facade; it claimed the 1972 Israel Prize for architecture. But the fate of the structure, known as the Mivtachim Sanitarium, was once far from certain: in 2005, Elstein heard of its planned demolition and stepped in to save the landmark. In a move more typical of governments than private citizens, she bought it, then worked with Rechter’s son Amnon (the third generation to lead local firm Rechter Architects) to preserve it and bring the interiors up to standard. In February 2015, the Elma reopened in its current form.
The public areas, by London firm United Design Partnership, are neutral, placing the focus on the art. The collection boasts works by names that range from such renowned figures as Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque to contemporary Israeli artists Yehudit Sasportas and Ilit Azoulay. Besides the public spaces now turned over to art, the hotel includes indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a luxury spa and treatment centre, restaurants, bars and one of Israel’s premier concert halls.
Local firm Baranowitz + Kronenberg was brought on to redesign the restaurant. Impressed with their sensitivity to the spirit of Rechter’s building, Elstein extended their commission to include the suites. The designers removed walls to turn many of the original 18-square-metre cells into 38 deluxe suites of twice that size, but did little else. “The moment we entered the rooms, it was very clear to us that we were not going to touch the structure,” says co-principal Irene Kronenberg. “It’s about concrete – white walls and concrete.” Apart from a furniture upgrade, including custom desks that can be angled to offer views of the sea, the suites remain monastic, true to Rechter’s vision of a place for restorative contemplation.
The amenities in the suites echo the fidelity to the architect’s nationalist goals. Runners on the beds revive a textile from the postwar era, produced by Israeli fashion house Maskit. Although made in Spain by Gandia Blasco, the rugs are a kilim weave, to reflect the Bedouin influence on the nascent national identity of 1960s Israel. Kronenberg says of the blue and yellow palette, “The colours are connected to the sun and the sand. It’s the DNA of our country.”
In the lobby, ceilings incorporate the exterior’s signature wave motif via a thin channel of light that snakes through the main entrance. Here, the original flooring was restored using irregularly shaped slabs of sand-hued Atzmon stone set in creamy terrazzo, creating the effect of an oversized giraffe hide.
If you go
How to Get There Trains depart regularly from locations across Tel Aviv to the town of Binyamina. From there, it’s a 15-minute bus ride north to Zichron Ya’akov. Taking a taxi from Binyamina will cut the time in half and costs around $20.
Things to do Among the complex’s main attractions are two concert halls that offer diverse performances year-round. The beautifully tiered, 450-seat Elma Hall was methodically designed by Arup’s renowned acoustic consultants, with dramatic striated side panels and a state-of-the-art stage that moves to increase seating capacity or create an orchestra pit. A smaller concert hall, seating 150 and descriptively known as The Cube, hosts more intimate performances.
A 75-kilometre drive south takes you to the city of Holon, often referred to as a children’s city, thanks to the Israeli Cartoon Museum, the Israel Children’s Museum and the city’s expansive parks full of statues depicting children’s stories. In 2010, the city began to redefine its cultural standing, opening the Design Museum Holon, built by esteemed architect Ron Arad, the first of its kind in Israel. The acclaimed cultural institution runs
a dynamic program of exhibitions on every aspect of design.
Where to eat Irene Kronenberg describes Oratorio, the hotel’s main restaurant, as “a melting pot of the bohème.” It features Mediterranean cuisine prepared using locally sourced ingredients in a casual setting.
A 15-minute stroll away – smack in the middle of the main pedestrian boulevard – is Manuella restaurant, an authentic, homey ode to Italy that makes everything from scratch.
Zichron is Israel’s epicentre for all things related to wine. Carmel Winery is one of the largest in the country, producing 15 million bottles per year at four separate facilities. The new Carmel Wine and Culture complex includes a shop, two tasting rooms, a cinema and a barrel room.
→ Rooms from $320. elma-hotel.com