When last year's port blast ripped through Beirut, one of the capital's victims was Sursock Palace. The explosion destroyed the 19th century Ottoman wonder, blowing off the terracotta-tiled roof and sending thousands of glass shards from shattered windows slicing through centuries-old artworks. Priceless marble statues crumbled.
“Everything in the house has been very badly damaged, nothing has been left untouched,” Owner Roderick Sursock Cochrane told Al Arabiya English. “Some is salvageable but a lot of things have been irretrievably damaged.
“We need to secure the walls and foundations, realign the stones that have been displaced and put tiles to the roof. It’s a lot of work,” he added. “The most difficult part will be the ceilings I think, as they’re very intricate.”
Other than some structural supports to stave off collapse and waterproofing to keep rain from causing further damage, the palace has sat in limbo, desperately awaiting aid.
Five months on from the blast, a group of six European and Lebanese culture-enthusiasts have stepped in to help save one of Lebanon’s most iconic heritage buildings, forming the RestART Beirut Fund.
“We decided to help as best as we could – by trying to save at least one of these beautiful buildings and its artwork and open it as a museum,” RestART co-founder Joseph El Hayek told Al Arabiya English. “We’ll be bringing some experts to Lebanon this year, with a first mission of restorers coming from France and Switzerland in March, and another one of young Swiss conservation and art history students in June most likely.
“This is part of RestART Beirut’s objectives - to promote academic exchange,” he added, “so we’ll have five Swiss students and four to five Lebanese students working on a database, an emergency assessment and the conservation of the palace.”
Completed in 1860 by Moussa Sursock, the palace is one of the largest residences of the Ottoman era in the country, still intact and functioning as a home to the original family. Surrounded by spacious gardens, the three-story palace features four towers and triple arcade windows.
After Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, the late Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane spent 20 years carefully restoring the palace to its former glory. The explosion undid two decades of work in seconds, causing more damage than 15 years of war.
Injured during the blast, Lady Yvonne, 98, passed away shortly after. She was a beloved advocate for art and heritage, serving as president of Sursock Museum, and founder of the Association for the Protection of the Natural Sites and Ancient Buildings in 1960.
“[Lady Yvonne] would have been very happy with the idea…for the future of the palace itself to have an organization around it to run it,” Sursock Cochrane added. “Right now I run it and it’s a big burden on me and I don’t want it to be a big burden on my daughter in the future. If she has an administration around her it will definitely be much easier.”
The museum will hold exhibitions, concerts, workshops and artist residencies, as well as showcasing the family’s restored collection, which was badly damaged during the blast. The family will continue to live on the upper floor and visits will be by appointment.
French and Italian 17th century furniture and tapestries, 18th century Persian rugs, priceless paintings by Gentileschi and Byzantine glassware found while digging the palace’s foundations are a small example of the collection’s wealth.
“My grandfather, who was a diplomat in Paris at the Ottoman Embassy, was very cultural and worldly, and formed a very interesting collection of Italian art,” Sursock Cochrane added. “This was supplemented by my grandmother’s drawings, and these are all still in the house.
“There is enough to restore, and with which to rebuild and create an interesting museum,” he added. “Most of the furniture will be restored in Lebanon because the artisans are very good, and some of the paintings will go to Italy for restoration. Slowly, with time, money, and a lot of determination, we can get there.”
The cost is an estimated $10 - $12 million to complete the palace’s restoration, and transform it into a cultural center. Funds raised will mostly come from private donations from Europe, as the Lebanese are desperately strapped for cash due to the country’s ongoing financial crisis.
Lebanese lira depreciation and banks sealing off dollar bank accounts means fresh dollars are essential to import materials from abroad. Brussels-based King Baudouin Foundation will be overseeing all donations and expenditures, to make sure financial transparency.
Sursock Cochrane estimates $6 million will be needed for masonry and interior walls, some of which have completely collapsed. For the past 20 years, the family has used the gardens for wedding receptions in order to cover maintenance costs for the palace. The unstable financial situation and pandemic have cut off that revenue.
“I would have been able to restore the house with my own means in six to seven years had I been able to work normally over the past year. It’s been dreadful and it’s taken a big toll on us,” Sursock Cochrane said. “We also have other Sursock properties in the area that were being rented out and all were destroyed in the blast, so there is no rent, no events, and we’re just surviving on fumes. We have no dollars left."
RestART has already started collecting money, and intends to hold a fundraising concert and gala dinner at the palace this summer. A few artist residencies will take place in September.
Beyond Sursock Palace, RestART will be working on other heritage homes and private art collections from next year. The blast zone in east Beirut is densely packed with Ottoman and French Mandate buildings, some redeveloped as homes, cafes, bars or commercial businesses.
The Directorate General of Antiquities estimated damages to 650 heritage buildings from the blast, with around 80 in critical condition. While laws were put in place to stop owners selling period homes before approved restoration is complete, state aid has been almost nonexistent. Instead, Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and private interventions have been the driving force behind the post-blast repair effort.
Some home owners have tried to find a loophole in the system by refusing to repair and waterproof, in the hope the building collapses, and they can build a more lucrative project.
“There are many heritage houses in Beirut that contain beautiful art collections, so we’ll work on them and renovate them, and hopefully be able to open them to the public once or twice a year,” Hayek said. “We’ve also spotted some cultural monuments, such as the old abandoned opera house in Riad el-Solh, and we plan to reopen it as a ballet school and working opera house.”
Efforts such as RestART are all that stands between Lebanon’s heritage and another mass loss like that of the 1990s, when Solidere ‘rebuilt’ central Beirut at the cost of its heritage buildings.