In 1929, construction finished on the Middle East headquarters of Ford motors. Located in Achrafieh, in what was then the outskirts of Beirut, the building was unlike anything else in the city at the time. In early 1930s photographs of the area, it looks rather like an alien spaceship landed in the middle of some unsuspecting village hamlet. Today, even though the massive Hotel Dieu complex has grown to tower above the “mini-skyscraper,” the unusual building still stands out. Three successively receding levels form the base of the building and create a ziggurat-like shape, which is pierced in the middle by an eight-story central tower. The façade is largely free of ornamentation. It was built entirely in striking white cement and glass: part functional modernist, part art-deco, part industrial chic.
The building was designed by Charles Corm. Totally untrained as an architect, Corm is remembered today as a poet, and is often called the “father of Phoenicianism.” But when he designed the odd building in Sodeco, Corm was a businessman, a sort of self-made car tycoon. Corm’s son David, himself a successful architect, said, “Now, if you talk about my father to people, they will tell you about his poetry, his books and so on. And they entirely forget about [his early years]… But this – the business – is the reason for that house.”
The reluctant tycoon
As David tells it, the story of the building goes back to Corm’s first visit to America in 1911 as an 18-year-old graduate of Beirut’s Université St. Joseph. Not only was it then that he became inspired by the monumental style of the New York City skyline, it was also during this trip that Corm wrangled his way into a meeting with the automobile magnate Henry Ford – after sitting outside his office in Detroit for weeks.
What happened during that meeting is anyone’s guess (young Charles, meanwhile, had just taught himself relatively broken English by attending the same play in New York City every night for one month), but by the time he returned to Beirut in 1920, Corm had an exclusive deal to sell Ford cars in the Middle East.
Nearly a decade later, he was in charge of 34 outlets in the region and decided to build a suitable headquarters for his business. Corm sketched out the vision himself, designing a skyscraper “to represent the American companies he represented,” surmised David.
Practically speaking, of course, a skyscraper is not the design best-suited for housing and displaying cars. So, in order to maintain his vision without sacrificing functionality, Corm had to extend the ground level floors: thus, the odd, ziggurat-like shape of the finished product.
From showroom to family home
Corm’s creation broke records in 1930s Beirut. It was the highest building in the city until the 1960s, and, according to David, it housed the first ever assembly plant in Beirut. Only five years after construction ended, however, on the day of his 40th birthday, Corm quit his job as the regional Ford man. In what must have struck him as a sadly telling moment, Corm had been so busy with work that his secretary had had to remind him of his own birthday. He had no wife, no children; only an empire that, in the coming years, he would insist he had never even really wanted.
In the weeks and months to follow, Corm emptied his life of everything having to do with the automotive business. On the spot, he wrote letters of resignation to the Ford offices in America and to his own various outlets in the region. To expedite the process, he personally provided bank assurances for the handful of employees to whom he handed over his responsibilities.
It was a move that bewildered many. Here was a man at the top of his game, with money and power and respect, who had only just finished building a towering headquarters. And then, almost literally overnight, he gave it all up and transformed himself into the poet Corm is remembered as today.
Perhaps this total transformation is part of the reason that the Corm house remains anonymous to so many passersby today. Even though the skyscraper was, in a sense, the only thing Corm carried over into his new life – transforming it into a home for the woman he married in 1936 and their five children – the building’s story was, nevertheless, pushed to margins of Corm’s biography, along with the rest of his early-life achievements.
Beirut, in fact, is full of places and stories like that of the Corm house, hidden gems sitting on the periphery of the city’s less-remembered history, waiting to be re-discovered.