Is France Doing Enough to Save Its Historic Buildings?

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Christophe Ena / AP

The 17th century Hotel Lambert, which belongs to the Emir of Qatar, on the Ile Saint-Louis in Paris. The Emir plans a multimillion-dollar renovation which has been approved by French Culture Minister Christine Albanel

Voltaire once called it a home fit for a king — and for a few hundred years, it was. After the Hôtel Lambert was built in 1639 by architect Louis Le Vau on Paris's Ile Saint Louis, the mansion played host to French nobility, exiled Polish princes and members of the Rothschild family of banking fame. But for Qatari Prince Abdullah bin Khalifa al-Thani, who bought the property from the Rothschilds in 2007 for $88 million, the welcome has been far from regal.

The prince's plan to restore the mansion to its 17th century glory while adding air-conditioning, an elevator and an underground parking lot has run into opposition from preservationists, who say the project would be disastrous. Opponents scored a temporary victory in September when a Paris court blocked the $60 million renovations until a final verdict can be reached — probably in the next few months. Whatever the outcome, critics say that the Culture Ministry's initial approval of the project points to a serious — and worrying — unraveling of France's system of architectural protections. "[This] raises doubts about the ability of our country to manage its own heritage," says Pierre Housieaux, president of Paris Historique, an architectural heritage association.

The objection to the prince's plan is largely twofold: Paris Historique, which took the developers to court after the government signed off on the project, says the underground parking lot would threaten the stability of the now-dilapidated mansion. The prince's desire to restore the mansion to the way it looked in the 17th century has also upset Polish officials, who say this would require removing architectural details that were added when the Polish royal family owned the building from 1843 to 1975.

Given the level of opposition, critics are puzzled by the government's quick approval of the renovations in June. Earlier this year, former Culture Minister Christine Albanel defended the plans, saying "the Hôtel Lambert is not a museum that is being transformed into a home. It was already a home. The renovations will be done according to the rule book." But art historian Didier Rykner believes that France's "political and diplomatic" objectives may have come into play. Since last year, President Nicolas Sarkozy has been trying to win multibillion-dollar energy deals with Qatar and new investment from the Persian Gulf.

Opponents are also concerned that Paris is now sacrificing heritage for economic gain. The government has struggled to shoulder the cost of upkeeping its $55 billion property portfolio, forcing it to sell off several historic palaces in recent years, much to the anger of some lawmakers. "These buildings ... are part of the historic and artistic patrimony of France and cannot be handed over to just anybody," legislator Lionel Tardy said during a 2007 parliamentary session.

In July, the National Assembly passed an amendment that would eliminate the need for the Architectes des Bâtiments de France (ABF), a specialized corps of state architects, to approve new construction projects in France's 600 protected heritage zones. Former Culture Minister Jack Lang decried the vote, saying it was pushed by Sarkozy's party under pressure from property-development lobbies and mayors with building projects the ABF would have turned down. (The amendment was rejected by the Senate and is now before a conference committee.) Even before the vote, Rykner says the government had begun to undermine the ABF, pointing to a case last year in which the Culture Ministry granted a permit to demolish a staircase in a protected 18th century building over the objections of the group.

Preservationists are hopeful that the Hôtel Lambert case marks a turning point. "I'm convinced this will be a sign of change, because we see now that the French are conscious of their riches," Housieaux says. But the prince isn't going down without a fight — he's preparing for a possible appeal. "It's been two years now since the Hôtel was purchased and there are still at least two or three years of renovations ahead," says Eric Ginter, al-Thani's lawyer. "At some point he would like to put his slippers on and settle in."