If the walls could speak, what a story they would tell! The home at 46 Ben Maimon Street in Jerusalem served as the first official residence of the Prime Minister of the State of Israel.
Between 1949-1974 three prime ministers took up residence here—David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir. If we listen carefully, the walls may divulge a few secrets.
This home witnessed all the successes and failures of the first quarter of a century of the State of Israel. You may be bit surprised by the look of this house. Compared to other official residences of national leaders, such as the White House, it is extremely understated. This is no accident. Aside from the fact that in the early years of its existence Israel faced serious financial hardship, the attitude of its leaders was extremely modest. Modest leaders live in modest homes, hence it should come as no surprise that the official residence is far from grandiose.
Israel was one of the first countries in the world to have a woman serve as prime minister. Golda Meir lived in this house, and it was during her tenure that she transformed the kitchen into a place of legends. She would invite the inner members of her cabinet to her home for meetings, where she herself would prepare coffee and cake for the guests. It became known as her “kitchen cabinet.” The next day, when the larger cabinet would meet, the inner group had already been briefed. The term “kitchen cabinet” (mitbachon in Hebrew) is a term used in Israeli politics until today.
The architecture of the house is unusual. The façade is plain white plaster and lacks the ornamentation typical of the Bauhaus style. The Bauhaus style was brought to Israel by German Jewish architects fleeing the rise of the Nazis. The house also has classical Roman and Byzantine style arches. The architect, Benjamin Chaiken, who designed the house, and Richard Kaufman, who designed the neighborhood in which it is located, were trying to develop a new style for Jerusalem, blending the ancient with the modern. The wall and guard house were not part of the original design.
On December 5, 1949, Ben Gurion declared Jerusalem to be the eternal capital of the Jewish people, and as such the government would move immediately to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, where it had been situated during the War of Independence. This house was chosen as the Prime Minister’s residence. Why? It was already in the hands of the Jewish Agency (it had been leased from the Jacobs family), and it was in the same neighborhood as the Jewish Agency and many Zionist leaders. The house is also on a corner lot, so it was easy to build a security wall and guard booth.
In 1974, when Yitzchak Rabin was elected prime minister, his wife Leah came to see the house. She felt it was in poor condition, so the Rabins requested a different residence. The official prime minister’s residence was then moved to a house down the street, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lives.
While the original house is not a spectacular piece of architecture, it is certainly an important part of the history of the State of Israel.
What is happening with the house today? Different suggestions have been put forth, such as making it into a museum. The current plan is turn it into a beautiful apartment building that would retain some aspects of the original house as a memorial.
By: Moshe Rothchild, licensed tour guide