Thursday, June 3, 2010

U.S. Fund Supports Study for Restoration of Historic Cairo Villa

Like all of the other neighborhoods in Cairo, Garden City has a fascinating story to tell. Built more than 100 years ago to resemble a Parisian district, the hamlet on the Nile River known for its greenery and stately villas once was home to Cairo's local and foreign-born elites. As times changed, Garden City's influential class moved on and many of the grand villas fell into disrepair.

Today, the historic district's fortunes may be changing for the better. A joint U.S.-Egyptian initiative to restore one of Garden City's villas may foster a climate of local business growth while preserving the country's diverse historical heritage.

Garden City remains unique among Cairo's vibrant neighborhoods. With its curved streets and weathered villas, it boasts a number of current and former embassies, among them Villa Castagli. Built at the end of the 19th century, the villa housed the U.S. embassy from 1943 to 1947.

In 2006, Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities designated Villa Castagli as an antiquity site. In addition to its historical value, the villa is an architectural gem. Ornate masonry work adorns the villa's exterior, while the interior features European-style paintings and mosaics in a room of dark, carved wood paneling.

The U.S. Embassy in Cairo, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the American Research Center in Egypt (ARCE)- like its Egyptian hosts - recognize the building's historical and architectural significance. ARCE is a nonprofit professional organization that supports research on all aspects of Egyptian history and culture.

After U.S. and local officials discussed the prospect of restoring the villa, the Egyptian government moved a girls' school out of the building in October 2008 to make way for restoration.

Both parties involved in the project believe restoring the villa may have a positive effect on the neighborhood. It is hoped that members of the local and international community follow the U.S-Egyptian lead and begin other villa restorations. As Garden City's buildings are restored, tourism and more business could return to the area.

Restoration work on Villa Castagli needs to begin soon. With the villa deteriorating from exposure to the elements, the longer it is neglected the higher the costs will be for its repair.

But before work can begin, the U.S. government is playing a pivotal role by funding a study to assess the best ways to restore and preserve the villa.

Funded by the U.S. Department of State's Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, the restoration of Villa Castagli study is currently under way. The one-year study is divided into two phases of six months each and is being overseen by renowned Egyptian architecture professor Saleh Lamei, director-general of the Centre for Conservation and Preservation of Islamic Architectural Heritage.

Phase one is a six-month conservation study looking at the best ways to prepare the villa for further use and restorations. Among the phase's features are a historical study, an environmental assessment, stone-and-brick investigations as well as laboratory tests on frescoes and glass. Results from the first phase will be used to create a strategy and methodology for restoring Villa Castagli to prime condition.

In phase two, the aging villa's construction will be closely examined. Working under Lamei's direction, engineers will create architectural and structural drawings, map the electrical and plumbing systems, develop work specifications and a list of materials needed for the villa's restoration.

The restoration work will be overseen by the Supreme Council of Antiquities, headed by Secretary-General Zahi Hawass under the auspices of Egypt's Minister of Culture Farouk Hosny. As part of its ongoing efforts to preserve national historical sites, the Egyptian government is willing to fully fund the estimated $4 million Villa Castagli restoration project.

The villa is slated to be more than a landmark once the work is complete. Villa Castagli will house a library open to the general public and contain a center to train Egyptians on preservation and restoration practices at museums. Among other potential adaptive uses of the villa following restoration is a school of museology that will be funded by USAID and implemented through the American Research Center in Egypt.

(by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State)