RestART: Restoring the majesty of Beirut's Sursock Palace
For the past nine months, RestART Beirut has been working to restore Lebanon’s Sursock Palace after the 2020 port explosion ripped through the Ottoman-era icon, collapsing the roof and ornate port-facing balconies.
Seventeenth-century paintings by Gentileschi were torn apart by flying debris and Byzantine glassware shattered when about 2,750 tons of improperly stored ammonium nitrate exploded only 600 metres away from the palace.
“Its interiors have been totally ravaged as if a tornado had swept through each room,” owner Roderick Sursock Cochran told The New Arab. “Immediately after the blast, we witnessed a heart-warming solidarity drive, whereby armies of young people came to the rescue and helped to clear out some of the rubble and deliver relief to many of the victims of the explosion.
“The rehabilitation task is immense and I’m very fortunate that RestART Beirut came to our rescue,” he added. “The palace was damaged during the [1975-1990] civil war but not as damaged as it is today. The restoration taking place now is of a much larger scale and will be technically more difficult.”
RestART Beirut was formed in the wake of the blast by a group of six European and Lebanese culture-enthusiasts wishing to save one of Lebanon’s most significant heritage buildings.
Under the aegis of Belgium’s King Baudouin Foundation, the fund is seeking to gather about $12 million in foreign donations to restore the palace and transition it from a private residence to a museum and cultural centre open to the public.
This week, they hosted three conservationists from Switzerland’s University of Art and Applied Sciences (SUPSI) to begin planning the work on the decorative elements inside the palace, with support provided by the Swiss Embassy in Lebanon. Till now, the work has mostly been focused on weatherproofing the palace and erecting scaffolding to support its weakened structure. The force of the blast caused the very stone blocks of the walls to warp and shift.
“Everything was cleaned inside so that the workers could access the walls and the rooms. All the marble tiles have been readjusted because before they were misaligned or on the floor and we did this with local craftsmen,” RestART co-founder Marie Eve Didier told The New Arab. “We also managed to fix a few elements like the antique wooden furniture, which we did at an artisanal workshop in Tripoli and the main brass door [of the palace] was repaired by Maison Tarazi.
“We are also conducting two big missions now. The first one that we are launching is an assessment for all the decorative surfaces inside the palace, so all the stucco, the moulding and internal marble decorations,” she added, “and the next project is anything related to painting restoration in the palace, like the wall murals and painted ceilings.”
Built in 1860 by Moussa Sursock, the palace is one of the last remaining residences of the Ottoman era in Lebanon, still intact and functioning as a home to the original family. The three-story palace features vaulted ceilings, triple arcade windows and towers on all four corners.
The palace interiors, richly adorned with gilded wood, intricate plasterwork and carved marble panels now looks abandoned, with broken chandeliers still hanging from caved-in ceilings and plasterwork crumbling off the walls.
“We’ve just finished an intense five days of work on site. In Sursock Palace, one of the main features is the wonderful stucco ceilings which have been badly damaged,” Swiss heritage conservator Giacinta Jean said. “The first step is to secure unstable parts, especially before the intervention on the building’s foundations. They will stabilise the decorations and avoid further losses; otherwise, the vibrations and movement related to a building site will cause more pieces to fall down again.
“For emergency treatment, it will take five to six weeks, with another year’s worth of work for the less urgent details and reconstruction of missing parts,” she added. “The decoration is part of the significance of this building. The character of the building must be preserved as it is and it’s not a case of imitating the authentic but actually staying true to the authentic techniques.”
The Swiss team will also be facilitating a student exchange programme, allowing Swiss students to come and work onsite at the palace and for Lebanese students to study at universities with restoration and conservation programs like SUPSI for a semester.
Similar to the Erasmus Exchange, the Swiss European Mobility Program is now open for the non-European country, giving Lebanon the chance to participate.
“Our expertise, together will local resources and knowledge could become a crucial step in improving technical skills and will be a fantastic opportunity for both us and the younger generation of students,” Jean said. “Our students are trained in principal… but as restorers of immovable cultural heritage you must be ready to go wherever, so this is a great chance to learn hands-on.”
The palace’s restoration and reopening as a museum is set to be completed in 2025. In the meantime, concerts, craft workshops, film screenings and exhibitions have been taking place in the surrounding gardens, with plans for more cultural events to take place in the main hall once it’s repaired.
Maghie Ghali is a British-Lebanese journalist based in Beirut. She works full time for The Daily Star Lebanon and writes as a freelancer for a number of publications, including The National, Al Arabiya English, Al Jazeera and Middle East Eye, on arts and culture/design, environment and humanitarian topics.
Follow her on Twitter: @mghali6