By Estelle Shirbon
A plan by a Qatari prince to bring modern comforts to his 17th century palace in the heart of Paris was attacked in court Friday by critics bent on stopping it.
Eminent academics and architects, well-heeled neighbors and even an elderly film star who lived in the riverside mansion for two decades have risen up against the project, alleging it will cause irreversible damage to a listed national monument.
Under scrutiny are moves to dig a car park beneath the paved courtyard of the building, which is called Hotel Lambert, and to build elevators and new bathrooms in the gilded living quarters.
"It's as if you had a magnificent horse-drawn carriage and you wanted to convert it into a standardized limousine," Jean-Francois Cabestan, an architecture professor, told Reuters before a legal hearing on whether to ban the works.
Cabestan belongs to an association for the protection of historic Paris which has gone to the courts to try and reverse official approval for the renovation project. It is a race against time, with building work scheduled to start in November.
Set at the tip of the Ile Saint Louis, an island in the Seine, the mansion has a distinctive facade with a semi-circular gallery, and was once home to the Rothschild banking dynasty.
The brother of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, emir of Qatar, acquired it in 2007 for a price of between 60 and 80 million euros ($86-$115 million), according to French media.
The Ile Saint Louis is a stomping ground for artists and intellectuals, and the arrival of a Gulf millionaire sparked rumors of flashy cars and marble bathrooms.
Residents' worst fears seemed confirmed when plans emerged for a bathroom located directly above a room with a painted ceiling by Charles Le Brun, the artist who also painted the spectacular Galerie des Glaces at the Palace of Versailles.
Critics were aghast that a leak might damage the priceless work and after an initial protest, the bathroom was scrapped.
The elevator plan was also modified to spare a particularly fine ceiling and the proposed car park reduced in size, leading the Ministry of Culture to approve the revised plans in June.
But this did not deter opponents from dragging the issue to the courts, and there were passionate arguments Friday on points as detailed as the location of the prince's proposed new toilets and why he needed so many parking spaces.
Thierry Tomasi, a lawyer representing the prince, said work was urgently needed to save the building from decay.
"The landlord is a great lover of art, particularly French art and architecture. His intention has always been to carry out an exemplary restoration project," Tomasi told the court.
Amongst those lining up to oppose the prince is a former resident of the Hotel Lambert -- film actress Michele Morgan, who is a legend in France since her love scene with Jean Gabin in the 1938 masterpiece "Quai des Brumes."
"Money can buy you everything, right? And all the petitions in the world can't stop it. But it's still worth putting up a fight," she told the online magazine Prestigium.
The case continues in September.