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Quiet Battle Rages Over Preservation of Historic Cafe Molay in Paris

A quiet battle is raging in the picturesque Latin Quarter of Paris over whether to tear down a landmark cafe that once served the famous and the powerful. The local city hall wants to preserve the building. The new owner wants to demolish most of the structure and build apartments. There are many similar conflict in the architecturally rich city.

The old Cafe Molay sits on a narrow street, off the elegant Boulevard St. Germain on the Left Bank of Paris. Just a few years ago noted intellectuals and politicians stopped in for fresh coffee.

But today, the small, two-story building is shuttered, its paint peeling. Hanging outside is a city building permit, informing passersby the structure will soon be torn down.

The permit dates from 1998. Yet the structure is still standing. Local residents and district lawmakers are fighting to preserve it. Among them is District Counselor Alain Morell, who is also vice president of the Commission of Old Paris, an advisory body for the Paris City Hall.

Mr. Morell says the two-story building, which was built in 1853, is the last example of such architecture in the neighborhood. Fundamentally changing the structure, he says, would be tragic.

But the buildings new owner, business tycoon Lucien Urano, disagrees. He wants to turn the old cafe into an apartment building. That means adding several more stories. His lawyer, France's former environment minister, Corinne Lepage, argues the project is a good one.

Mrs. Lepage says the apartment scheme will be in good taste, and fit into this elegant and historic neighborhood. Otherwise, she said, she would not be defending it.

The dispute over Cafe Molay is one of many concerning the city's old architecture. At their monthly meetings, members of the Commission of Old Paris discuss scores of other contested building permits. But overall, Mr. Morell says, Paris does a better job of preserving its cultural heritage than other European capitals.

Around the Latin Quarter, opinion appears to be split over Cafe Molay. At a book store across the street, one clerk said she used to frequent the cafe. She thinks the building should be preserved.

But local resident Brigitte Dussart says the building is an eyesore, which should be heightened to match the other buildings on the street.

Mrs. Dussart says she is not opposed to transforming Cafe Molay into an apartment building. She understands that this very chic and expensive neighborhood, there is pressure to use every square meter of real estate.

The Paris City Hall is expected to make a decision on the future of the building soon.