Saturday, January 23, 2010

Renovating for Rent, a Lebanese Retreat

Renovating for Rent, a Lebanese Retreat

By ANDREW FERREN for The New York Times

Published: January 19, 2010
It seemed they fell in love with the wrong house. In early 2004, Kamal Mouzawak, the founder of Beirut’s twice-weekly farmers’ market Souk el Tayeb, and Rabih Kayrouz, a Lebanese fashion designer, were looking for a second home in the Lebanese countryside or perhaps the mountains, a place where they could escape their busy work lives and the bustle of Beirut. But it was a house in Batroun, a the seaside town about 25 miles northeast of Beirut, that swept them off their feet. The house in question is an 8,500-square-foot two-story home nestled into a private half-acre walled garden that belonged to the grandparents of an assistant in Mr. Kayrouz’s atelier. “From the street I knew we wanted it,” said Mr. Mouzawak, 40, pointing out that it is easily the grandest property in town. In ancient Batroun, most buildings rub shoulders along narrow streets, but this house, with its large private garden, was a princely paradise. The only problem was that it was neither for sale nor for rent. It wasn’t really inhabitable either, having been more or less shuttered since Lebanon’s civil war in the 1980s. Derelict or not, the owners had no interest in parting with it. So in an arrangement that does justice to the ancient Lebanese art of deal-making, the owners ultimately agreed to accept renovation for rent. The assistant’s mother served as intermediary in negotiations that lasted six months and involved lawyers and architects for both sides. In the end, Mr. Mouzawak and Mr. Kayrouz, 36, spent $100,000 to restore and renovate the property, entitling them to a 10-year lease. The owners’ architect signed off on all the work done. A day later, they celebrated with 300 guests for breakfast in the garden. The home is a traditional 19th-century Lebanese house built over the remains of several 16th-, 17th-, and 18th-century constructions. Working one floor at a time, the eight-month renovation respected the original layout, but took the house down to its bones when needed to install new plumbing and sanitary systems, as well as a heating system. About 70 percent of the original beige and grey stone floors were taken up stone by stone, restored, and replaced. The upstairs has a large central salon with the traditional three-arched window that is surrounded by smaller rooms as if it were an enclosed courtyard of an ancient Roman villa. Downstairs is a series of vaulted stonework spaces that now includes two guestrooms and two baths as well as a large kitchen and pantry. “In our careers and individual enterprises, we’re very different, but when it comes to designing our homes, we’re usually on the same page,” Mr. Mouzawak said. “For us the greatest luxury was the feeling of space and light so we added just the minimum of furniture needed to make it functional.” To avoid cluttering the white walls, most of the art is propped on the floor, though five original over-door paintings, done in the early 20th century by Youssef Howayek (1883-1962), a Lebanese artist, remain in situ. Both men dislike the stagnant aura of guestrooms that sit idle until someone comes to stay, so one of the upstairs bedrooms has a divan that can be made up into a bed, but otherwise serves as a sitting room. In the so-called cinema room, where movies are screened onto the bare wall, the original painted ceiling was preserved in one of the few ornate moments in the house. The scale and functionality of the long custom-made sofas keeps more pedigreed pieces like the Mies van der Rohe Barcelona chairs from feeling like design pieces. Perhaps because food and entertaining are such an inherent part of their lifestyle, the house’s front door leads into the upstairs kitchen, one of four on the property. The big vaulted one downstairs is used for Mr. Mouzawak’s cooking workshops, as well as large dinners. There are two more rustic kitchens outside, including one in the garden with a sink, workbench, and a cupboard stocked with cutlery and plates. Lebanese meals are meant for lingering, so the dining room has comfy sofas and armchairs around the table. A wall of cabinets, bought from an old fabric store in Beirut is where they keep collections of table linens, plates and utensils, obviating the need for standard kitchen cabinets. Likewise, the upstairs bathroom’s standout piece is a large 19th-century cabinet that was one of the few pieces that they kept in the house. Whereas Byblos, a nearby town, is rapidly rebounding as a high-end resort, Batroun is all about casual easy living. “Instead of going to the beach with towels and the whole kit we just walk through town half naked and jump in the water,” Mr. Mouzawak said. “When we’re done swimming we come back to the garden. The sea is two minutes away.” In 2014, they will either negotiate a new lease or move on, something neither is particularly afraid of doing. “I wish more people were open to doing this,” Mr. Mouzawak said. “We love the adventure of finding homes and fixing them up. Even if we had to hand over the house today, it would still have been money well spent. And we’d look forward to the next project.”

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