The Lambert Hotel, an architectural treasure of the 17th century located on Saint-Louis island in Paris, stands at the centre of a legal battle over renovating France's historical landmarks.
The history of the Lambert Hotel is intertwined with those of Delacroix, Chopin, Voltaire, the Rothschild family and Michèle Morgan. As one of the most famous private mansions in Paris and located at the tip of Saint-Louis island in Paris, the hotel is a jewel of 17th-century architecture. But the building, considered a national monument, now stands at the centre of a legal battle over renovating historic structures.
The trouble began last December, when the Commission for Ancient Paris (Commission du Vieux Paris), charged with monitoring demolition requests lodged at the town hall, came across 4,000 pages of a plan to restore the Lambert Hotel. The plan had been drawn up by an architect from the department that oversees the renovation of historic buildings (Bâtiments de France), Alain-Charles Perrot, at the request of the hotel's current owner, Prince Hamad Ben Khalifa Al-Thani, the brother of the emir of Qatar.
In defence of the past
The installation of four elevators, the construction of an underground car park, raising a garden wall – these are the plans that anger the members of the Commission for Ancient Paris and the capital’s historical association. In the following months, Perrot modified his plans for the building several times and, last June, obtained the agreement of the French Ministry of Culture. But he still has not managed to convince the defenders of France's historical landmarks – both in France and abroad – who have submitted a complaint at the administrative tribunal. The tribunal judge heard arguments on September 8.
“We do not condemn the project itself, but its miscalculations,” says Pierre Hézieaux, president of the Paris historical association. “They want to install air conditioning. Where will the pipes go? We had a bathroom removed from above the Gallery of Hercules (painted by Charles Le Brun) that was likely to damage the paintings in the event of a leak, but the plan that was adopted does not specify what the room will be used for in the end.”
Among the numerous heresies that are proposed, Hézieaux says the air-conditioning pipes will “disfigure” the façade and that the car park’s construction “is likely to destabilise the equilibrium of the building, and indeed that of the entire island”. Raising the garden wall by 50 centimetres, moreover, will “ruin the perspective”.
A return to former glory?
“These allegations are, essentially, founded on mistaken assumptions,” says Thierry Tomasi, a lawyer for Prince Al-Thani, who bought the Lambert in 2007. “What people do not know is that a car park was built during the 1980s in the courtyard and that, in doing so, one of the vaulted archways was destroyed. Should you keep things in this state, or should you restore what was destroyed? Only one solution exists: to build the car park underground. That would not destroy any part of the building.”
Concerning the bathroom above the gallery of Hercules, Tomasi says the renovation plan includes “removing all water sources within this zone”. On the question of air conditioning, he states categorically: “That was never envisioned,” he explains. “Our plans only include the installation of a ventilation system to maintain a stable temperature necessary to preserve the paintings by using piping in the ground that was built in the 19th century.”
“The submitted plans are more mindful of preserving the building than all the preceding proposals,” he says emphatically.
Perrot indeed intends to return the hotel to the original grandeur it was given by the young architect Louis Le Vau, who designed the building in the 17th century for the secretary of Louis XIII. And this could entail removing some of the modifications that followed later.
“The Charter of Venice [the international agreement on the preservation and restoration of monuments], on which the Ministry of Culture bases its decisions, calls for restoring a site to preserve its historical features,” Hézieaux says. “The current restoration plan does not envisage preserving the modifications that were made in the 19th century.”
The Polish ambassador has other feelings on the matter. The restoration work done in the 19th century was ordered by Prince Adam Czartoryski, an eminent figure in Poland’s history, whose family occupied the building between 1843 and 1975. “How can we ignore the importance of such a figure?” diplomat Tomasz Orlowski asked in an indignant letter to French Minister of Culture Fréderic Mitterrand who, fearing a diplomatic row, immediately visited the Lambert and stated that he would see to it that the memory of its previous owners and residents would be preserved.
While waiting for the legal issue to be resolved, the building continues to deteriorate dangerously. According to the Ministry of Culture, its framework is weakening, the parquet wood floors are rotting.
Meanwhile, Prince Al-Thani stands on the sidelines, ready to spend some 13 million euros to restore this architectural gem to its former brilliance.
Date created : 2009-09-07