Fire has ravaged a Qatari-owned 17th-century mansion in the heart of Paris, whose cultural and historical connections range from Chopin to Brigitte Bardot.
Although the spectacular blaze destroyed much of the roof of the Hôtel Lambert on the Ile Saint Louis, 170 firefighters who battled throughout the night are thought to have saved at least a part of the building’s art treasures.
Amongst masterpieces known to have been destroyed are the murals painted in a bathing room in the 17th century by Eustache Le Sueur. The room was entirely destroyed by the collapse of part of the building’s roof.
“This is a serious blow for the city’s historical heritage,” the Mayor of Paris, Bernard Delanoe, said when he visited the scene this morning.
The Culture Minister, Aurélie Filipetti, said: “There has been grave, and in some cases, irreversible damage to an essential part of the heritage of Paris.”
The oddly-shaped building on the eastern prow of the island in the Seine was designed by Lois le Vau, who went on to create the Palace of Versailles. The Hôtel Lambert was briefly the home of the writer Voltaire and his mistress the Marquise du Châtelet in the 18th century.
In the following century it became a centre for Polish aristocratic exiles and the building for which Chopin, a frequent visitor to the hotel, composed his Suite Polonaise. In the 1960s its ground floor became a luxury apartment in which the Parisian glitterati, from Salvador Dalí to Brigitte Bardot, danced the night away. In 2007 the building was purchased from the Rothschild family for €80m by a brother of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the former emir of Qatar. His plans to install car parks, air-conditioning and lifts generated a mammoth battle with Parisian conservation groups.
The acquisition of the building, which has been classed as a historical monument since 1862, sparked a three-year legal battle. Conservationists accused the new owner of philistinism and wanting to turn the mansion into the equivalent of a fortified “James Bond villa” in the heart of one of the best-preserved areas of Paris.
Lawyers representing the Qatari purchasers accused the protesters of displaying “racial prejudice”. A compromise was found in 2000.
The fire broke out for unknown reasons in the roof on Tuesday night when a multimillion euro renovation programme was nearly complete. Nobody was in the building at the time.
Hundreds of Parisians gathered in the early hours to watch firefighters and 50 fire engines battle to contain the blaze. By the time the fire was under control, 7,000 sq ft of the roof, including a turret, had been destroyed. Part of the main staircase and some of the facade had collapsed.
Firefighters struggled to rescue celebrated murals including the Hercules Gallery painted by Charles Le Brun in the 17th century. First reports last night suggested that these paintings had mostly been saved, although some had been badly damaged by smoke.
“The fire spread very quickly… It was very difficult for us because the entire structure was threatened,” said Lieutenant-Colonel Pascal Le Testu of the Parisian Fire Service.
The Hôtel – which also means an urban mansion in French – was built between 1640 and 1644 for the financier Jean-Baptiste Lambert.