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Musée Henry turns fragments of Lebanon’s history into a poetic mosaic.
HENRY LOUSSIAN FELL in love with elegant Beiruti houses the first time he saw the inside of one. Built in a combination of Ottoman and Italianate styles, they’re a reflection of the city’s cosmopolitan history — but many were crumbling. With the aim of preserving a vanishing heritage, Loussian began purchasing items from condemned buildings back in 2007. Today, a three-story building in the seaside town of Batroun, 35 miles north of the capital, houses his museum and residence.
Beirut has had its fair share of heartbreak, yet the city manages to stay afloat despite it all, buoyed by the resilience of its inhabitants and the dollars that the Lebanese diaspora bring home. It has a spirit that is intoxicating. Even amid the damage wrought by conflict, Beirut is a beauty, with every stone of every building telling a tale of pleasure and pain, love and loss.
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Many of the city’s structures were already in disrepair long before the August 4, 2020, explosion caused devastating damage. Their demise had begun as far back as the 1940s, accelerated by the onward march of property developers and modernization in the post–civil war years.
But Loussian has spent the last 15 years salvaging items — such as doors, windows, chandeliers, and tiles — from these demolished buildings and creating the Musée Henry, an homage to Beirut’s past.
“Being sad for our lost heritage is not helpful,” he says. “Beirut will never stop changing, and I accept this fact, but the best thing to do is to give new life to something.”
To get to Loussian’s museum, you must leave the heat and haze of the capital behind and head north. It isn’t easy to find. At once imposing and somehow hidden, the house, a handsome salmon-pink structure with cheerful turquoise window shutters and a roof of terra-cotta tiles, sits on a hillside surrounded by olive groves and a handful of residential villas.
From the colonnaded terrace that leads to the main entrance to the first step inside the house, visitors are surrounded by gentle breezes and the twittering of birds. Loussian’s fashion designer wife Rytta welcomes us into the central hall. It’s a breathtaking space filled with sunlight that floods in through the slender curves of mullioned triple-arched windows, dancing on the crystal chandeliers and reflecting off the highly polished floors.
In the fireplace, topped with vintage glass vases, is a stack of original roof tiles made in Marseilles and stamped with the image of a butterfly, the manufacturer’s symbol. Fragments of reclaimed, hand-painted ceilings sit on a shelf. There’s a block of wood impaled with thick nails. Rytta invites me to pull one out and smell it. A heavy scent of iron and cedar tickles my nose, a fragrance that was said to deter bugs from eating their way through the beams. In the kitchen, a sagging armchair sits beside an open door, all the better to feel the breeze. On the counter is a pink jug and water glasses. It feels as if someone’s grandmother is about to walk in and fuss over us with coffee and cakes.
The house’s trompe l’oeil marble walls were painted by Loussian himself, as were the detailed ceiling frescoes. But Loussian isn’t trained as a painter. He took photos of the ceilings of houses in Beirut and painstakingly reproduced the designs. It took him eight years.
When he completed the main construction of the house in 2013, Loussian fell into a deep depression and wanted to sell it. But a chance meeting led Loussian to find a deep faith, becoming a “born-again, new Henry.” He believes that a higher power gave him the skills he needed to continue. “If you only write one thing,” he told me, “please say I am thankful and grateful to the Lord.”
Back in Beirut, there’s a quote from the Lebanese-American writer Khalil Gibran painted on a wall, just yards from the explosion site. It says, “You have your Lebanon and its dilemma. I have my Lebanon and its beauty.” While the country continues to navigate its many dilemmas, with people like Loussian working to preserve its heritage, its beauty will continue to shine.
Nicola Chilton has lived and worked in six countries and currently makes the United Arab Emirates home. She writes about people and places for a number of major publications in the U.S., Europe, Middle East, and Asia.
Adel Slimane Fecih is a photographer and artistic director based in Paris. After graduating from Duperre School in Applied Arts, Adel spent six years on the editorial staff of MilK Decoration.
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