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Race against time to save Europe’s largest timber building, the Greek orphanage in Istanbul’s Princes islands

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« A first step forward in the effort to save Europe’s largest timber building in Istanbul has been completed, but experts warn the restoration is progressing slowly. » Al-Monitor

Istanbul’s historical Greek orphanage, known as Europe’s largest and world’s second-largest timber building, is set to be salvaged after decades of involuntary disuse that has left the edifice almost in ruins. Experts, meanwhile, warn that ongoing restoration efforts are still far from reassuring.

Preliminary work to salvage the 123-year-old building, an edifice situated on a hilltop on the island of Buyukada off the coast of Istanbul, began earlier this year through the coordination of the Istanbul municipality and Ecumenical Patriarchate, the owner of the site. In May, a construction company run by the Istanbul municipality reproduced the visual image of the structure mapping the current condition of the building and analyzing the damages. The survey will serve as a groundwork for the restoration project. 

Yet the historical edifice’s salvage is far from sealed as the restoration process seems to be fraught with several uncertainties. 

The landmark building was designed by Levantine architect Alexandre Vallaury and built in 1898 on Buyukada, the largest of Istanbul’s nine Princes’ Islands, originally to serve as a casino and hotel complex. After Ottoman authorities refused to issue an operation permit to the hotel, a Greek philanthropist purchased the building and donated it to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1903 to function as an orphanage. The orphanage housed more than 5,000 children before falling into desuetude in 1964. 

Following decadeslong disuse now nearly half of the edifice’s roof has collapsed and some floors were torn down. The building was designated as one of the seven most endangered sites in 2018 by Europa Nostra, a European cultural heritage organization.

“It is evident at first sight that the buildings are in an immediate risk of collapse unless urgent actions to support and protect the structures from falling down are quickly put in place,” a 2018 Europa Nostra report said. 

Although ongoing restoration efforts were welcomed amid growing fears of the landmark building’s total collapse, experts say the process is progressing very slowly and lacking the institutionalized approach that a project of this sensitivity requires. After the completion of the digital mapping no concrete measure has been taken to protect the edifice from looming bad weather.

Architect Korhan Gumus, one of the experts who applied to the Europa Nostra’s endangered sites program for the inclusion of the orphanage, warned of “disastrous consequence” in the absence of such an approach.

“We’re wasting our time,” Gumus told Al-Monitor, calling for the formation of an advisory board or holding an international competition to accelerate the process.

Gumus argued that a restoration project of this magnitude cannot be undertaken solely by Istanbul municipality’s sub company and that the mammoth effort requires immediate involvement of architects. 

Mayor of Princess’ Islands Erdem Gul also said that “immediate action” is required, but that ongoing efforts are focusing on urgent measures to preserve the building instead of restoring it.  

He noted that before the restoration work starts a decision has to be made on what the edifice should function as once it is rebuilt.

“Since it will not be an orphanage again, it is necessary to decide what its function will be, and then the architectural mind can step in,” Gul told Al-Monitor, stressing that the final decision on the function of the building should be taken by the patriarchate. 

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians around the world, previously expressed his desire to restore the site as an environmental center that would host international conferences on environmental protection.

Yako Karayani, a Buyukada resident of Greek origin, supports that idea. “If this place becomes a place where environmental studies are conducted, it can earn fame around the world,” he told Al-Monitor. He said that he is « hopeful about the ongoing process » aiming to restore the edifice. 

The cost stands as another major impediment before the restoration project. The Europa Nostra’s report estimates that total investment for the project requires some $47 million. Who will finance the project remains an open question. Some argue that the government should sponsor the project as it was the official negligence that left the building to rot. 

The Turkish government expelled the residents of the orphanage and seized the property in 1964, along with several other properties owned by Turkish citizens of Greek origins amid worsening military and political relations between Turkey and Greece. The European Court of Human Rights ended decadeslong legal saga between the Turkish government and patriarchate in 2010 by ruling that the property should be returned to the patriarchate.

Mihail Vasiliadis, editor-in-chief of the Istanbul-based Greek language Apoyevmatini newspaper, agrees that the government should assume the responsibility, stressing that the landmark building was left unattended after its seizure.

“[The orphanage] was taken away from the patriarchate and the children residing there were forced to leave. Unfortunately, the government has not performed any maintenance work [since then],” Vasiliadis told Al-Monitor. “You have taken [the building] away from me, but then at least you have to protect and take care of it. The orphanage was left to be demolished. The state must cover the cost of making it usable again. The patriarchate cannot afford this.”

The patriarchate is planning to start a fundraising campaign for the restoration project. Speaking at an Aug. 28 event organized in the front yard of the orphanage following the completion of the digital surveying, Bartholomew called for a “comprehensive cooperation” to overcome the financial and technical obstacles facing the restoration project. 

“The orphanage is our common value and its fate is our responsibility,” Bartholomew said at the event. “We wish to reach out to state authorities, municipalities, nongovernmental organizations and all Istanbul lovers to receive their support.”

Gul said they were considering shielding the exterior of the building in a bid to protect it from bad weather as looming winter weather could cause further damage.

Echoing the immediate action calls by experts, he said the urgent decision-making process should follow the urgent preservation measures.

“That building had shown compassion to orphan children, but we have failed to return the compassion it deserves. From now on, we should see how we can show compassion to it,” he concluded.

Al-Monitor, October 5, 2021, Eylem Yılmaz

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