Built in the late 1800s in a Lebanese architectural style blending Venetian and Ottoman motifs, which was in vogue in the 19th century, the home of Elias Sursock was demolished in 1965-1966 at the behest of his two daughters, Eva Sursock Rayes and Melanie Sursock Kfoury, because of a row over inheritance. Sharing the estate turned to be a problem, as none of the heirs was able to buy the other out, so the two parties decided to demolish the house, and sell the land. Each thus obtained her share from the sale.
Along with his partners, Gabriel Rayes - son of Eva Sursock and one of the pioneers in the elevator industry - acquired the land on which the Boutros, Audi and Rayes buildings would be constructed later. Rayes kept part of the plot for another real estate project. But his plan had to be postponed, because Eva Sursock Rayes, who had lived in a large house surrounded by a garden, did not want to move to an apartment. She wanted a private house with a garden to recover a piece of her lost paradise. Gabriel Rayes then commissioned the architectural firm of Albert and Nicolas Menassa to build a villa, as a mini-replica of the house in which his mother was born and raised. However, the building's foundations were designed to support a larger building in the future. This was built in the 1980s.
Remnants of Elias Sursock’s heritage
La Maison Rayes is immediately recognizable thanks to its three white marble arcades. A few steps away, a white, eclectic Italian style door opens onto a large hall with a five meter high ceiling and exquisite marble flooring. There, the eye is irresistibly drawn to the back wall entirely lined with eight polychrome stained-glass windows made in France.
Combining oriental and European inspiration, these fragments of colored glass are encased within decorative panels inside black stained walnut wooden marquetry, inlaid with mother-of-pearl and hammered copper, and embellished with oriental calligraphy designed by Carlo Bugatti (1856-1940), a prominent Italian decorator, designer and manufacturer of Art Nouveau furniture who is also the father of car manufacturer Ettore Bugatti and animal sculptor Rembrandt Bugatti. The doors, which open onto the reception rooms, are of the same design and also decorated with Bugatti style marquetry. All of these exceptional decorative elements come from the Elias Sursock palace, giving the villa's interior a certain majesty, but also a welcoming warm feel.
Slightly curved over time, because their fillers have given up or the lead has deteriorated, the stained-glass windows have been restored by specialist Maya Husseini. "And the woodwork by the Maison Michel Tarazi," said the hostess, Tania Rayes-Ingea, who is the granddaughter of Eva Sursock, co-founder of the Earlybird agency and author of "Portrait and palace of Beirut" and "Beirut, the city center of my father," published in 2011 by La Revue Phénicienne.
A house is always a memory
This place filled with life imbued with an eclectic blend of Italian, Ottoman and French styles is an anchor for the family’s memories manifested in a striking way in Tania Ingea. For her, every nook and cranny of the house carries a story: this is where her parents got married; there, where she was born; in the garden, she played with her brother; in the living room by the fireplace, her grandmother told her about her trips to Egypt and described to her the home of Elias Sursock, who hosted General Gouraud for a few months in 1919 before he settled in the Résidence des Pins; and about the family dinners which took place under the gaze of the ancestors whose portraits hang on the walls of the dining room, and where the old original oak parquet floor, now stripped and polished, has regained its luster of the past.
After the death of her parents and brother, the property remained unoccupied for years. Today, under the guidance of Tania Ingea, the house is coming back to life and opening its doors to a new chapter: its reconversion into guest rooms. The renovations were entrusted to her husband Joe Ingea, architect and industrial designer who graduated from the Scuola Politecnica di Design di Milano and the Lebanese Academy of Fine Arts, and had some of his creations adopted abroad, like the Davidoff watch and the luggage for the Italian brand MH WAY.
To offer modern comfort within a decorative makeover, the three bedrooms, three bathrooms and the private guest lounge have undergone a radical transformation. Only the original door handles, windows and floor have been preserved so as to keep the characteristics of a private hotel.
Bright and spacious, with French windows opening onto a generously sunny garden, the rooms with delicate shades of blue, beige and green, offer a zen and relaxing space. Here, technology is everywhere, but meant to be invisible. The ceiling, more than 5 meters high, hides a completely silent air conditioning system. The space thus offers a warm and friendly welcome in a serene setting in the heart of Beirut.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 28th of May)
Built on the site of Elias Sursock Palace in the mid-sixties, the Rayes House stands in the heart of the prestigious Greek-Orthodox district of Sursock; on the same spot where once stood the opulent home of the wealthy businessman Elias Sursock, the son of Ibrahim Sursock and older brother of Nicolas and Michel Sursock.Built in the late 1800s in a Lebanese architectural style blending Venetian...