A Palace Overhaul, Treading on French Heritage

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PARIS — The Hôtel Lambert, in a corner of the Île Saint-Louis overlooking the Seine, was once one of Paris’s best-kept secrets. But when a high-rolling Qatari prince bought the crumbling 17th-century palace in 2007 for $88 million, the Lambert became the center of attention, not all of it so attractive.

The Lambert was built as a private residence (a “hôtel particulier”) for the Lambert family and was finished in 1644, when it bordered Parisian fields and cows. But it has been through various owners, who have made various architectural changes, some of them disastrous. The building was most recently used as a kind of apartment complex for friends of the Rothschild family, and some of the most beautiful rooms, with frescoed ceilings and 18th-century paneling, are moldy and cracked.

The plumbing is outdated and leaks; the original floors are a mess, or have been replaced. Even a free-standing silver bathtub, set in a huge room with a view of the river, is pitted and tarnished.

The stupendous “Gallery of Hercules,” with its paintings by Charles Le Brun, who also worked at Versailles, is dark with smoke and age; restorers have cleaned small sample sections, suddenly revealing the glossy leaves of a holly tree. In the famous “Cabinet des Muses,” which once housed five original canvases by Eustache Le Sueur that now hang in the Louvre, a small section of wall has been cleaned of dirt, paint and gilt to reveal a sky blue ground that matches the paintings...

... Last month, in response to a suit by an association of preservationists, “Paris Historique” — supported by a group of historians, architects and a handful of celebrities, including the actress Michèle Morgan, who lived at the Lambert for 20 years — a Paris administrative judge suspended the work permit granted to the prince in June. A final decision is expected in a few months.

Opponents see the plans as a threat to France’s “patrimoine,” or its cultural heritage — a matter not taken lightly here. They say that some of the prince’s proposed modifications would ruin the building, and they view him as an intruder with little appreciation for the Lambert’s architectural value...

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