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Fire ravages historic Paris mansion


Text by FRANCE 24

Latest update : 2013-07-10

The Hôtel Lambert - a 17th-century heritage building on the Île Saint-Louis, Paris, which is currently owned by a Qatari prince - was severely damaged in a fire that broke out around midnight Tuesday and took about six hours to put out.

Situated at the tip of the Île Saint-Louis, the Hôtel Lambert was once described as one of Paris’s best-kept secrets.

That was until 2007, when the 17th century mansion was bought by a Qatari prince whose plans to modernise the structure sparked a controversy nationwide.

Now a fire that ravaged the magnificent residence overnight Tuesday into Wednesday is bound to reignite an acrimonious debate and cause fresh recriminations among French conservationists.

The fire broke out on the roof of the mansion around midnight on Tuesday and tore through the premises, according to fire officials.

“The fire spread quite quickly because the building is empty and in the middle of renovations,” fire service spokesman Lieut. Col. Pascal le Testu told reporters on Wednesday morning.

“Intervening is complicated because the structure has become quite fragile,” he added.
Around 140 firefighters who rushed to the scene took about six hours to bring the blaze under control. Residents in neighbouring houses were evacuated, and there were no casualties.

The 17th cenutry mansion is also home to paintings by Charles Le Brun, who famously worked on the Chateau de Versailles.

"There are a number of artworks and also paintings on the ceiling,” said le Testu. “We tried to preserve them during our work. We must now make a comprehensive review of the damage these artworks have suffered due to the flames, or smoke, or heat radiation, or water.”

A royal owner and a royal legal fuss

For some of residents of the upscale neighbourhood, many of whom joined a signature campaign to save the structure, the fire has resulted in a heritage loss for the city.

"For several hours, we saw a big red halo above the Île Saint-Louis," Sophie Pons, a resident who lives behind the Hôtel Lambert told the French daily, Le Monde. “This is a disaster, because we fought for the frescoes of the ‘Galerie d'Hercule’ to be retained in the renovation project, and they’ve all gone up in smoke or been submerged under water." 

The Galerie d'Hercule – or Gallery of Hercules – features frescoes by Le Brun and is housed in the mansion, which was designed for a wealthy financier, Nicolas Lambert, by the architect Louis Vau, who went on to oversee an expansion of the Chateau de Versailles for Louis XIV.

It came under the spotlight in 2007, when Prince Abdullah Bin Abdullah Al-Thani, from the Qatari royal family, bought the mansion from the Rothschild banking family for around 60 million euros.

The prince’s attempts to restore and modernise the 43,000-square-foot building – including a plan to destroy a staircase, and add new elevators and an underground car park – sparked an uproar.

In 2009, a French court blocked the plan, including designs to instal a vehicle lift. The dispute was finally resolved in January 2010 when the prince signed an agreement with the heritage association Historic Paris after weeks of delicate government-supervised negotiations.

Under the agreement, the association withdrew legal proceedings against the prince, described by the ministry as "a great friend of France" who cares for its heritage.

The controversy around the Hôtel Lambert sparked criticism in some circles that a “small cloud of xenophobia” had overshadowed the issue.

While Paris and Doha share strong bilateral ties, there has been mounting disquiet over what the French see as Qatar’s multi-million-dollar “shopping spree” – which has seen Qatar increase its stakes in hotels, real estate and the luxury goods sector in France. The country also owns Paris's football team, PSG.

That debate is likely to re-open in the next few days as experts examine the damage done to the capital's historic Hôtel Lambert.

Date created : 2013-07-10