People who are passionate about urban decay and exploring abandoned places have certainly stumbled on many interesting sites across Lebanon. Sadly, this stunning country has been ravaged by Civil War and social unrest, plagued by an economic crisis over the past few decades. Just a few years ago, a tragic explosion in the port of Beirut, the capital of the country, damaged many buildings of enormous historical interest, leading to more decaying abandonment in the area.
What makes many buildings in Lebanon so interesting is the fact that they reflect the kaleidoscopic culture of the country. It is a crossroads between the east and the west, deep in the head off to the days of prosperity and wealth that defined the turn of the century in Lebanon, as artists and elites from all over the world were happy to relocate or spend time there. The Beit Beirut / Barakat building certainly belongs to this category. Also known as “The House of Beirut,” or “The Yellow House,” this majestic palace remained abandoned for many years, although it was recently renovated to host a museum dedicated to the civil war and the city of Beirut in general.
The Barakat House dates back to the 1920s, a period of prosperity and expansion for Lebanon. The designer, Youssef Aftimus, is particularly well-known for his work on Beirut’s City Hall, as well as many other private residences. In the 1930s, the building was expanded to feature two additional stories and revamp its look and feel. Over the following decades, the iconic building became the home of several families, occupying the eight apartments featured within. Things took a sharp and abrupt turn with the onset of the civil war in Lebanon. The building was particularly valued by fighters due to its strategic position. In particular, the upper stories and the roof were a vantage point for Christian militia snipers, who could aim at targets in the main combat zone from a distance and secure control over one of the city’s busiest crossroads. The building was essentially on an invisible line that separated the two militia factions and an important site that played a big role in guerrilla warfare during the conflict.
Through the war, the Barakat house underwent extensive distress and decay due to vandalism, “battle scars,” and decay. In the late 1990s, the “Yellow House” was poised for demolition, but local cultural preservationists managed to prevent that from happening, fighting to preserve the historical and architectural value of such an iconic landmark in the city of Beirut. A group of activists led by architect Mona Hallak went to great lengths to make the public aware of the building, its value, and its history. In 2003, the government finally took control of the house and initiated a process of renovation, hoping to turn it into a museum and cultural center. The plan experienced some delay due to further civil war bouts, but it eventually came to fruition in 2016.
Before the renovation, the building showed many signs of the civil war, casting a dark shadow over the beautiful Ottoman-inspired appointments, the ochre limestone (giving the house its distinctive yellow hue), and stunning wrought ironwork throughout. The terrace, which played such a relevant part in the war, remains majestic and ample, offering a stunning view over the surrounding area. The colonnades are still showing the signs of bullet holes, almost as a stark reminder and a symbol of the horrors of the civil war. Many local activists and historians still consider the Barakat building as a reminder that a country shouldn’t forget its past. Lebanon has a history of downplaying or dismissing some of its darkest pages, with most schoolbooks failing to mention the recent civil wars at all. However, the fact that this building was able to acquire a new life as a cultural landmark stands as a testament to the resilience of Lebanon’s culture and heritage.
Special thanks to Silat for culture for making this visit possible, and thanks to my partner The Heritage Management Organization for the project I was asked to photograph for them in Beirut, Lebanon.
More photos of the Beit Beirut building in Lebanon can be found below: