Eight years after the 1873 tragic shipwreck that took the lives of their four daughters, Horatio and Anna Spafford, along with baby Grace, three-year-old Bertha, and fourteen friends from their Chicago church, sailed to Palestine. They sought the peace that Horatio had so courageously written about when he penned the words to the song, It Is Well with My Soul, over the water where his shipwrecked daughters had lost their lives.
The group arrived in Jerusalem, which was part of the Ottoman Empire controlled by the Turks, without specific plans other than their desire to live a simple life for a few quiet years. They purchased a house near the Damascus Gate in the Old City, and the group soon became known as the American Colony.
The Colony offered charity to its neighbors, both Jewish and Islamic. The house on Mamilla Road became a gathering place for Horatio’s Bible study classes, singing and social events. Child welfare and settlement work began when Anna befriended an Arab resident whose baby would not nurse. Anna introduced the family to Nestlé’s Condensed Milk fed from a bottle.
In 1895, the year after Horatio died, Anna, Bertha, and Grace Spafford returned to the United States to raise funds for their work in the Holy City, which Anna had decided would become the family’s permanent home. More residents returned with them to Jerusalem and within two years, thirty-eight farmers and their families from Nas, Sweden joined the Colony. A larger residence was needed. The Colony then purchased a former Turkish palace outside the city with several acres of vineyard for farming.
Cottage industries, employing Arabs and Jews, wove cloth, supplied bakery goods, and planted the city’s first potato crop enabling the American Colony to emerge from poverty. Young people came for teas, receptions, literary and art clubs, and a choir and band performed on Sunday afternoons. The Palestinian Director of Public Instruction asked Anna Spafford to take charge of the Moslem Girls’ School, which she did.
The American Colony officially became a hotel in 1902 when Barron Ustinov (grandfather to British actor Peter Ustinov) who owned a hotel in Jaffa, made arrangements with the Spaffords to take in some of his visiting European guests.
During World War I, the American Colony started a soup kitchen, feeding Syrians, Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, Russians, Jews, Muslims, and Christians. The Turkish general in charge of Jerusalem became quite emotional when, on the very day America entered the war and broke diplomatic relations with the Turks, the Spaffords offered to nurse both the British and Turkish wounded.
On December 9, 1917, the Arab mayor of Jerusalem came to tell Anna of his intended surrender to the British that morning. Anna insisted that he take a white truce flag, which she tore from a Colony hospital bed sheet. (It now hangs in the Imperial Military Museum in London.) Before the mayor left the house, he joined the Christians present in the room in singing The Doxology in praise to God for the end of the war.
Under British rule, the American Colony expanded its relief work, establishing a sewing enterprise which hired eight hundred Arab and Jewish women to make and distribute garments throughout the Holy Land. In 1925 the Anna Spafford Baby Home was born, and soon after, the Infant Welfare Center with a playground, toilets, showers, first-aid facility, and recreational equipment was added.
During World War II, the Infant Welfare Center was enlarged to serve all the sick, regardless of age or religion. Three years after the end of the Second World War, The Colony was once again situated in the midst of conflict from its unique vantage point, literally on the border between the Israelis and Arabs. The hotel was struck numerous times in the crossfire, but both sides respected the Colony’s neutrality, even to the point of granting a temporary cease-fire so The Colony could bury one of its members. The International Red Cross opened a casualty clearing station in The Colony’s big dining room. The American Colony became a part of Jordan at the conclusion of Israel’s War for Independence in May of 1948, and then returned to Israel in 1967 when Israelis again took control of all of Jerusalem.
The American Colony continues to be an oasis of peace for Arabs, Jews, and Christians in Jerusalem. International journalists, diplomats, tourists, and, no doubt, a spy or two have taken haven in the three buildings that currently house the eighty-four room hotel. In 1992 members of the Palestine Liberation Organization, including Faisal Hussein, a descendent of the original owner of the palace who had sold the home to Horatio Spafford, and representatives of the Israeli government met in Room 16 of the American Colony Hotel for the secret talks that led to the Oslo Peace Accords.
The American Colony Hotel, now managed by Gauer Hotels of Switzerland, is still owned by the descendants of the Spafford family, who serve on the board of directors. For one hundred and twenty-five years, the American Colony has been the life work of four generations of Spaffords. At various times controlled by the Turks, British, Jordanians, and the Israelis, the American Colony has a unique place in Middle East history. It stands as an example of and a hope for the peace in Jerusalem.