The Ruined Apartment Building Becoming Beirut's Memorial to Civil War

Places have some kind of memory," the late writer WG Sebald once told me, "in that they activate memory in those who look at them. It's an old notion: this isn't a good house, because bad things have happened in it."

These words came to mind as I had a preview tour of Beit Beirut (Beirut House), a ruined beauty of a Levantine apartment building, in the Lebanese capital's Ashrafieh district, that is to become an extraordinary Museum of Memory. A four-storey landmark on the corner of Independence Avenue and Damascus Road, its yellow walls are pitted and pockmarked by bullets and mortars from the civil war of 1975-1990.

Earmarked as a centre for modern urban history, from when Beirut was the "Paris of the East", the building – formerly known as Beit Barakat or the Yellow House – will also be Lebanon's first publicly funded museum of the civil war that ended 25 years ago.

Strategically located on the former Green Line, a no-man's land sundering Christian East Beirut from the largely Muslim west of a divided city, this residential building with graceful colonnaded verandas was fortified into a terrifying war machine. Even derelict, it is remembered by many Beirutis as having been for 17 years an impregnable snipers' lair – a random dispenser of death.

The museum is not due to open until next spring, but I visited the site with its architect, Youssef Haidar. The structural renovation is complete, yet its war scars remain. "I always considered the building as a living Lebanese person with traces we all have – some visible, some hidden," Haidar says. "It's beautiful and unique, and has so much to tell us."

He avoided a "facelift", to show its age and experience. Built in 1924-1932, Beit Barakat was the work of two architects, first Youssif Aftimos and then Fouad Kozah, who added the top two floors. Its eclectic, neo-Ottoman and Art Deco style is a testimony to Beirut's cosmopolitan openness. It also marks a historic transition from hand-engraved sandstone to ochre-painted concrete – hence "yellow-house" style.

Of the eight apartments, four were rented out. A Palestinian Christian family lived opposite a Maronite dentist – supposedly opposing factions when war broke out. After residents fled in 1975, snipers squatted amid the high-ceilinged splendour and bourgeois fittings – of which curtains, colourful Art Deco tiles and other traces remain. Snipers working in shifts were paid by the head and considered themselves heroes.

With the first-floor memorial to the snipers' nests, Haider says "we stopped time", stabilising the shell-damaged plaster and bullet-holes with as much care as precious frescoes. Prosthetics are in contrasting grey metal. This distinction pays off, since it is actuality that chills, not pastiche or reconstruction.

The corner building's unique architecture, with a central void, afforded all the apartments views over the street. These transparent visual axes became lines of fire. Snipers destroyed elegant staircases to widen sight lines and boxed themselves in behind two-metre-thick walls, shooting through wooden slits across the building's interior and out the other side, without ever risking exposure. Decoy silhouettes painted on walls drew futile bullets.

The $20m renovation allows the building to tell its own story while adding all the paraphernalia of a modern museum, from basement archives to rooftop café. The second floor will display objects abandoned when residents fled in 1975 and tell the story of the pre-war city. During the works, 60,000 negatives of the neighbourhood were unearthed from a resident photographer's shop. As we speak, the architect receives a message on his phone which he says is from one of the snipers they have been trying to trace. Off-duty snipers would air their doubts and feelings on walls, in fragmented graffiti diaries, under aliases such as Begin or Katol – including words to Gilbert, a presumed gay love.

After the stifling den, which leads the visitor into the mind of a sniper – his boredom, fear and perhaps delusion of omnipotence – I reached the airy top-floor veranda with a sense of deliverance. For Haidar, the goals are nothing short of catharsis and reconciliation. A Beiruti who trained in Paris, he left for France for 15 years after the Israeli invasion of 1982, "and tried to forget – but you can't".

When he returned, Beit Barakat was facing demolition. The municipality purchased it after a lengthy campaign, led by architect Mona Hallak.

Beirut's cultural heritage has been under siege, first by warlords then by real-estate developers pushing the high-rise redevelopment of the damaged city centre. A postwar amnesty in 1991 – which covered the snipers – fuelled amnesia about what novelist Hanan al-Shaykh described in Beirut Blues (1992) as a "demons' playground". Beirutis, al-Shaykh once told me, "don't want to think of the days when they were so frightened; when the city was under a spell, a plague". For Haidar, "we're wiping certain layers of memory".

South of the house, Dr Mohammed al-Khatis leads me through the overcrowded squalor of Shatila refugee camp, past young children playing in a derelict car. Down an alley with tangled overhead wires, his own Museum of Memories has an Arabic sign on the door: "For every piece there is a story and in every corner there is a sadness." The dimly-lit, L-shaped space, which floods when it rains, is filled with a thousand objects relating to the Palestinian nakba, or "catastrophe", of 1948.

Al-Khatis, a poet and playwright, says "I wanted to do something for my home, so I collect pieces people brought with them from Palestine. Every object has something to say." Al-Khatis likes to show "the other face of the camp". Among the objects are kettles, pots and farming tools; the sole 1940s radio from a village; Mahmoud Darwish's poems; and poignantly redundant house keys. There is a sewing machine his mother used to earn money for his medical studies, saying, "If you have no land, I can only give you education." Qualifying in Spain, he came to work at the camp hospital in 1979. In a glass cabinet is a hatchet he says was one of five found in the camp after the 1982 Sabra-Shatila massacres, when he escaped from the hospital with his life.

Shatila's Museum of Memories attests to a reality many Beirutis and others would prefer not to remember. If, as the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury writes, memory is "the process of organising what to forget", Shatila's painstaking souvenirs are still struggling against oblivion.