From Hospital to Cultural Center: Hansen House in Jerusalem

Facade of Hansen House, Jerusalem. Note the arched windows, featured in all Conrad Schick's buildings.
Facade of Hansen House, Jerusalem. Note the arched windows, featured in all Conrad Schick’s buildings.

Leprosy.

Throughout history lepers were feared and stigmatized. They were often forced to wear bells around their necks to warn others of their approach. They were forbidden from entering cities. Many visitors to Jerusalem in the 19th century were disturbed by the sight of lepers clustered outside the city’s Zion Gate.

One tourist, however, turned her dismay into action. Baroness Augusta von

Portrait of Baroness Augusta von Kefferbrinck Ascheraden hanging in staff dining room of Hansen House, Jerusalem
Portrait of Baroness Augusta von Kefferbrinck Ascheraden hanging in staff dining room

Keffenbrinck Ascheraden provided funding to build an asylum for people with leprosy. The asylum, located near where the US Consulate is today, opened in 1867. Twenty years later, a new asylum opened between the fashionable Talbiyeh neighborhood and the German Colony. Designed by the renowned architect Conrad Schick, it was named “Jesus Hilfe” (Jesus Helps). However, everyone simply called it the “Lepers’ Home.” Like the other buildings designed by the self-taught architect, the four story Jesus Hilfe is both beautiful and functional. It combines European design with Arab elements, such as arched windows.        

In 1950, the Israeli Ministry of Health took over administration of the asylum and renamed it “Hansen Government Hospital.” In medical circles leprosy had become known as Hansen’s Disease, in recognition of G. A. Hansen’s discovery of Mycobacterium leprae, the cause of the disease. M. leprae is similar to its close relative M. tuberculosis, which causes tuberculosis. Both organisms grow and reproduce very slowly. Therefore, curing a mycobacterial disease requires treatment with several antibiotics for six months to more than a year.

Once they could be cured with antibiotics on an outpatient basis, the residents at Hansen’s Hospital were discharged to home as quickly as possible. They returned to the old Lepers’ Home outpatient clinic for regular checkups and treatment, if needed. A few patients remained at the hospital until 2000. At that time, the last four residents were transferred to nursing homes because they had nowhere else to go. Today, two hundred patients from all over the country receive treatment for Hansen’s Disease at Hadassah Hospital’s outpatient clinic.  

Today, the Hansen’s Hospital building is neither an asylum nor a hospital. After the last patient was discharged, the building fell into disuse, partly because it carried the stigma of leprosy. A friend recalls that during her childhood no one in the neighborhood ever walked on the same side of the street as the Lepers’ Home. Recently the rehabilitated main building reopened as a media and arts center.

The Jerusalem Development Authority, which renovated the hospital building, is now working on the other structures in the complex: the doctor’s house, outbuildings, and gardens. The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design’s graduate programs, Mamuta group for contemporary art, and the Jerusalem Film and Television Fund have all moved into redesigned spaces in the large building.

The day we toured the newly renamed Hansen House, it was full of people. Besides those who regularly work there, dozens of teenagers attending a computer workshop filled eight rooms. Several other small groups were also touring the complex. In the garden, fourteen crafts people had set up booths to sell jewelry, colorful knit baskets, leather purses and belts, hand sewn clothing, and handmade wooden toys. The stigma of disease seemed gone, destroyed in the process of updating the complex. The resident artists who conducted tours of the building were the only ones who mentioned leprosy.

The name “leprosy” still invokes ancient fear of a disease associated with frightful deformities, one that connotes contamination and impurity. It seemed to strike randomly and could affect anyone. The Bible refers to a condition called tzara’at, usually translated as “leprosy.” Although some of its symptoms, such as swelling and red spots on a person’s torso, are similar to those of leprosy, there are distinct differences between the two conditions. Unlike leprosy, tzara’at could also infect houses and clothing. Tzara’at was a considered a symptom of a moral failing, usually gossip and speaking badly about other people. Treatment included isolation outside the community and specific purification rituals. Interestingly enough, if the swellings and spots were distributed all over the body, the person was not considered to be affected. He remained within the community.

The conflation of tzara’at with leprosy, which was common in the Middle East and Europe, was a disservice to the sick people. Isolation from their communities and being shunned by all who saw them neither helped them recover nor protected their community. Hansen’s Disease is extremely hard to catch. Almost no family members or caretakers of people with Hansen’s Disease have ever developed the disease themselves. The manner in which M. leprae spreads is unknown. Even today, according to the World Health Organization, no one is sure how it is transmitted.

The former Lepers Home in Jerusalem is already being used as a cultural center, even though the renovations are not yet complete. Art exhibits and crafts fairs take place regularly. A long room on the roof level has been refurbished to be used for community events. It was once used as a children’s playroom and for drying clothes in the winter. When we visited, the guide said the room was authorized for gatherings of fifty people or less. When they finish building another emergency exit on the outside, it will accommodate audiences of two hundred people for concerts and films.

Staff dining room, Hansen House, Jerusalem
Staff dining room, Hansen House, Jerusalem

On the first floor, two rooms have been turned into a permanent historical exhibit. The staff dining room features a large glass-topped wood table and chairs. The original white china tea set in the middle of the table looks as if it is waiting for the nurses to come in at tea time. A washing machine stands in a corner ready for the next load of patients’ sheets, and a treadle operated sewing machine is between two windows. The large arched windows on two sides of the room admit ample light.

Across a small hallway from the dining room, is the doctor’s examination and treatment room. The doctor’s appointment record lies open on the desk, waiting for him to make his next entry. A tall glass case of clean instruments gives us a glimpse of treatments that may have been required. There are even a few pill bottles in the case, but if any pills remain inside them, they are sure to be well past their effective dates.

The saddest exhibit is the small case labeled “Patients’ personal belongings.” It contains a small light blue purse with a few coins spilling out of it, a long out-of-date Egged bus ticket, part of a letter written in German, he top portion of a telegram.

Patients' belongings, left behind when they died at Hansens Hospital
Patients’ belongings, left behind when they died at Hansens Hospital

My gaze kept returning to the wedding photo in the upper left side of the case. Who were these people? Had the bride or groom been a patient here? Or was this from a family member’s wedding, an event the patient had not been able to attend? Perhaps it was the only memento of a family that never visited after admitting the sick person to the home. It must have been very important to have been kept so long by a lonely resident whose family never came, not even to pick up belongings left after death.

Thank G-d we have antibiotics to treat M. leprae today.

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