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Proxy guardians of the past - Monuments Historique
Proxy guardians of the past - Monuments Historique
Published FT September 29 2006

There are two things about a building: its use and its beauty,” wrote Victor Hugo. “Its use belongs to the owner; its beauty belongs to everyone.” His pamphlet entitled Halte aux démolisseurs , published in 1832, was a denouncement of the destruction and alteration of historic landmarks, based on his belief that ancient buildings were part of a collective heritage. It was in part a reaction to the French Revolution of 1789-1799, during which time three quarters of Paris churches were destroyed (leading the Abbé Gregoire to coin the term “vandalism”).

By October 1790, the Assembleé Constituante had already called for a commission to identify and protect France’s great buildings. But it had limited powers and many properties suffered wildly different fates. Some were torn down in acts of populist revenge. Others were put to alternative uses – not always glamorous; some buildings became the local DIY yards, while many châteaux were transformed into mere cowsheds.

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I once saw a village house, in the Aveyron, nestled at the foot of a 12th-century castle’s impressive square tower. Most of the castle was in ruins but close inspection of the walls of the house revealed that the recyclable material had not travelled far. There was a stone sink among the ordinary granite blocks and finely carved beams had found alternative uses propping up the fireplace.

In 1840, 41 years after the revolution’s end and eight years after Hugo’s appeal, the French government put in place its first list of monuments historiques , including just over 1,000 buildings, mostly medieval and mostly cathedrals. Notre Dame de Paris was on the list, as was the abbey at Vézelay, and the commission, like all good bureaucracies, continued its work by adding sites, publishing again in 1865 and 1889. By 1913, the whole apparatus merited its own law and this forms the basis of today’s protection of listed buildings in France.

Those familiar with the pleasures of leafing through top-shelf French property magazines and slavering over a pair of well formed turrets on a Renaissance château will have come across the initials MH. This is the mark of a state-approved quality building.

The act of 1913 creates two levels of classification, classé monument historique , which means the French minister of culture has deemed the building to be of national public interest, and inscrit monument historique , which applies to buildings that have a regional historical or architectural interest. The law also established an added attraction for those keen to protect the view from their historic houses. All monuments historiques are the centre of their own conservation area, which means that special planning permission must be granted for any new building works within 500 metres of their footprint. This means that the mayor, the prefect of the region and the official heritage inspector, the architecte de bâtiments de France , must all agree that the addition is in keeping with the importance of its grand neighbour.

Today, France has approximately 42,000 listed buildings, of which about 14,000 are houses, with approximately half in private hands. Roughly a third of all the properties are monuments classés and two-thirds are inscrits . A third are from the Middle Ages and almost half are from the 16th to 18th centuries. Six per cent are gardens. The Eiffel tower became a monument historique in 1964.

So far, so simple. But there is a pick-and-mix element to the listing of buildings. Recently sold in Limoges through Sifex for €1.2m was a building by the American architect Richard Morris Hunt, who also designed the pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. A château he designed in 1886 for porcelain king Theodore De Haviland was deemed in 1992 to be sufficiently unusual to warrant classé status. All of the exterior plus some rather fancy panelled entertaining rooms were classé but then other elements of the interior were merely inscrits . By the time you get to the inside of the stable boys’ lodging in the outhouse, it is neither inscrit nor classé . The only way to know for sure is to examine the original official listing of the building, called l’arrêté

What does this protection mean in practice? It’s the beginning of a carrot-and-stick relationship between owner and state. The stick is restrictions on the owner’s freedom; he or she can’t turn the building into a night club, for example. The carrot comes in the form of grants and tax breaks. “If you are French resident and paying French taxes, you can offset any restoration work on the listed building. If the building is a second home owned by a UK taxpayer, the advantages are that certain building works may be eligible for state grants,” says Dawn Alderson, head of the French department at Russell-Cooke solicitors.

According to Alderson, monuments inscrits can qualify for grants worth up to 40 per cent of works on the listed elements, although in practice they are usually smaller. Classé buildings can qualify for up to 100 per cent for urgent work, although the working norm is 50 per cent. Extra grant money is sometimes available from regional and departmental tourism coffers if the building is open to the public.

Philippa Freeland, at Château de Tenessus, a 14th-century castle in the Deux-Sevres, which was given inscrit monument historique status in 1935, says the grants have been invaluable in helping her with restoration work but has a few words of warning for anyone considering buying a listed building. “It’s been very nice having the assistance but you have to be very persistent and you have of fill in all the right forms and hammer on all the right doors,” she says. She also thinks it’s more difficult to secure money now than it was when she began work more than 15 years ago.

Others complain that builders tend to charge more for grant-aided restoration, so owners end up paying nearly the same as they would have without help. Even those who volunteer to finance the whole project must still get permission and use an approved contractor.

“A lot of people think that listed buildings are quite constricting,” says estate agent Emile Garcin, who is currently selling a rare fortified 13th century castle overlooking the Isere river between Valence and Grenoble for €2.5m. “More and more people just want a comfortable easy-care life and don’t want to live in draughty old buildings.” The new generations, he adds, are less interested in the castles that have been handed down to them by their ancestors. “They want to travel and don’t want to go to the same place year after year.”

Paris-based agent Philip Hawkes argues, however, that the nicest homes in France are often listed ones, mainly because older buildings tend to occupy the best sites. He points to Château de Saint Martory, on his books for €3m, which is in the Ariège, with 40ha overlooking the river Tarn. “It was renovated in the 19th century and comfortably modernised by the father of the present owner. It’s very cosy for a listed castle.”
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