Inside the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies
In the Transitions department of the Spring 2014 issue of Preservation magazine, we highlighted the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies, or TALIM for short. At the time, the three buildings that make up the property in Tangier, Morocco's historic medina were undergoing considerable restoration and repair, but were labeled as “threatened” because of the issues caused to their foundations, walls, and roofs by humidity and trapped moisture.
If you missed the original story, then you may not know that TALIM is the only National Historic Landmark on foreign soil. But the property is significant for many more reasons.
What is now TALIM was originally gifted to the United States by Sultan Moulay Suleiman of Morocco in 1821. Back then, it was the first structure owned by the U.S. government abroad. The building originally functioned as the U.S. consulate in Morocco, and has served as a symbol of American engagement with the Muslim world ever since.
The 16,500-square-foot Moroccan courtyard-style compound also played an instrumental role in the Allied landings in North Africa in 1942 and in the rescue of more than 1,200 Jews from occupied Europe.
The property transitioned from its official diplomatic function into a State Department institute for Arabic language training in 1960, and later housed the Peace Corps school for French and Arabic before officials were persuaded to lease the building to TALIM—which recently celebrated its 40th anniversary—in 1976.
Today, TALIM houses an 8,000-volume research library, operates a long-standing women’s literacy program, and is looking to expand English language lessons for local children and students.
The property also contains a museum dedicated to the history of Moroccan-American friendship (Morocco was the first country to recognize American independence) and centuries of Moroccan-American cultural exchange (everything from recordings of traditional Moroccan tribal music to artifacts related to beatniks like William Burroughs and Paul Bowles). Much of the museum’s collections, including parts of Malcom Forbes’ world-class toy soldier collection, were gifted by prominent Americans with connections to Tangier.
Thanks to the efforts of TALIM’s former director Gerald Loftus (who departed in July 2014) and the continued efforts of current director John Davison, along with support of the American Ambassador to Morocco, the State Department, and others, preservation work at the site has continued.
Since TALIM was featured in Preservation magazine, 10 of the property’s 12 roofs and terraces have been resurfaced, and though the American Embassy ordered the property’s 19th-century Moorish-style building closed in May 2015 due to an unstable foundation, the State Department is funding restoration and repair work that will adhere to UNESCO World Heritage standards.
In the future, superfluous and non-historical layers of the building’s roof will be removed in order to reduce weight and stress on the building itself. And though the sandy soil and slope of the historic medina, combined with Tangier’s wet seasons, means that structural issues will continue to develop over time, TALIM and the State Department (which still owns the building) are planning for more strategic repairs in the future.
In the meantime, the current work at the site is being used as a learning resource for others in Tangier and the region who are interested in historic preservation.
“Europeans and Moroccans are very impressed that we care enough about our own heritage to preserve our history in another country," says Davison. “It’s something Europeans give us credit for, because it surprises them that we care so much about our history and have this museum here.”