Beirut Fund Launched to Save Lebanon’s Heritage

The recently launched RestART Beirut Fund has clear goals in mind: to not only save Lebanon’s fading heritage buildings and art collections but to also make them available for the public to appreciate.

Their pilot project, Sursock Palace, is no small undertaking. Working alongside the Sursock Cochrane family, the project seeks to restore the badly damaged Ottoman villa, which was torn apart by the Aug. 4 blast, and transform it into a cultural center and museum.

One of many grand residences built by the family during Ottoman times, Sursock Palace was completed in 1860 and later became the home of Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane, the late philanthropist, art and historic architecture advocate who passed away not long after the blast. It was her wish that Lebanon’s grand heritage survive for future generations.

“We’ve conserved the house against the weather and rain with a temporary roof, supported all the masonry that was at risk and luckily now everything is secure. There’s no rain getting into the palace and the windows and doors have been blocked with vinyl,” Roderick Sursock Cochrane told The Daily Star. “In the meantime we’re trying to raise money for the maintenance, construction and restoration of the house, both masonry and interiors, which is taking a lot of time unfortunately.”

Created by six European and Lebanese culture enthusiasts, the project, under the aegis of Brussels’ King Baudouin Foundation, aims fundraise $10-12 million to save the palace.

“The palace … houses a very rich, wonderful collection of paintings and tapestries from the 16th-18th century which was also heavily damaged,” RestART co-founder Joseph El Hayek told The Daily Star. “The family was looking for support to renovate the huge palace and that’s why we got in touch with them. Sursock Palace is an icon of Beirut and should not be left like this.

“The good thing about the whole project is it will result in a new museum in Beirut, which is much needed,” he added. “We’ll transform the palace from a private residence into a cultural center, which will host exhibitions, concerts, workshops and artist residencies.”

The project held its first fundraising campaign just before Christmas and managed to raise enough money to cover the most urgent work needed, such as an emergency inventory and safeguard of the palace’s damaged art collection and antique oriental furniture.

A group of European experts will visit in the coming months to help with the restoration and conservation of the artistic elements of the villa and collection. New roofing is needed, as well as stonework and the more detailed decorative ceilings.

“We hope to open the museum by 2024 or 2025, if things go according to plan, but with COVID and the political situation in Lebanon, things might change,” Hayek said. “We’re also planning a few workshops with the Sursock Cochrane family over the course of the year, to slowly introduce the public to the palace and what we’re doing.”

The nascent museum will showcase the restored collection of Italian art and French tapestries, as well as running cultural events in the main hall, by appointment. Fundraising events, such as a concert and a gala dinner, are also planned for the summer.

The initiative also plans to take on other heritage projects next year, as so many of them were damaged by the explosion and restoration is a slow and costly process.

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