Safety fears bring down the shutters at La Samaritaine

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The Independent Online

La Samaritaine, the famous Parisian department store, is to close for at least four years while renovation work is carried out after it was declared unsafe.

The store, which is loved by generations of Parisian shoppers and tourists alike for its decorative style and the views from its roof terrace, will close next week after a police report said the 133-year-old building was a fire risk.

Managers will then decide whether to cease trading completely for at least four years or to opt for a partial closure that would mean the work could take more than 10 years to complete.

The store's managing director, Bruno Villeneuve, said the renovation process would cost an estimated €100m (£66m) and the closure would mean the store's owners, the luxury goods group LVMH, losing around €3m a week.

The report said the buildings metal structure and ventilation systems did not meet safety standards.

"The decision to close is the worst solution economically," La Samaritaine's president , Philippe de Beauvoir, said. "But the situation is so alarming that I cannot permit the store to be opened." All 750 staff will be retained on full pay and around half of them - mainly security and administrative employees - will be required to continue working.

Located on the banks of the Seine, between the Louvre and the Notre Dame cathedral, La Samaritaine was opened in 1872 by a former travelling salesman, Theodore-Ernest Cognacq, and his wife, Marie-Louise Jay. They chose to name it after an ancient hydraulic water pump on the nearby Pont Neuf bridge decorated with an image of Jesus speaking to the Good Samaritan.

At the turn of the century, there was a revolution in shopping habits as France introduced department stores to the world and La Samaritaine was at the vanguard of fashion. Its extravagant Art Deco and Art Nouveau stylings, cast iron railings and vaulted glass ceilings typified the new shopping palaces and, as its popularity grew, the store quickly expanded into adjacent buildings.

The company stayed in the Cognacq-Jay family until the 1990s when it ran into financial trouble after losing customers and paying the cost of upkeep on the by now decrepit building. The family sold one of the stores on the Rue de Rivoli shopping thoroughfare to retailer Etam.

French luxury goods and retailing group LVMH took over as main shareholder in 2001 and was in the process of introducing its luxury brands such as Chritian Dior and Lacroix to attract a younger clientelle.

Up until this week, as many as 50,000 shopers were still visiting the store every day, and it remains a popular tourist attraction.

While workers were reassured to learn they were not to lose their jobs, some were less than optimistic about their future. "We all know each other, it's one big family," said a saleswoman, Jessie Benquet. "It's already the end of an era."

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