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The new World Heritage site you can't enter

The treasure-packed interior of Brussels' Stoclet Palace is a mystery to all but a privileged handful.

The Stoclet House is seen on June 29, 2009, in Brussels. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

BRUSSELS, Belgium — The marble-clad palace, crowned with a quartet of muscular copper nudes, is a familiar landmark for thousands of Brussels' commuters who drive past every evening on their way to the leafy eastern suburbs.

But the treasure-packed interior of the Stoclet Palace is a mystery to all but a privileged handful and the unique artworks it contains are more remote to inhabitants of the Belgian capital than the Taj Mahal or Pyramids of Giza.

Last year, the Stoclet Palace joined the United Nations’ list of the world’s greatest heritage sites. It was one of just four European monuments added to the list, a reflection of the palace’s importance to the history of modern art, architecture and design.

The masterpiece, generally considered one of the finest private houses built in the 20th century, remains in private hands. Although the state is financing repairs and maintenance, the palace remains strictly off limits to the public.

“Very few people have ever visited it and there are hardly any photographs. That’s crazy when you think the Belgian taxpayer is paying for its repairs,” said local councilor Gauthier van Outryve d’Ydewalle.

Brussels banker Adolphe Stoclet ordered the palace built in 1901 on the designs of the Austrian architect Josef Hoffmann, founder of the Wiener Werkstatte movement, which was revolutionizing art and design in Vienna.

The palace is the movement’s masterwork. Hoffmann broke with the ornate art nouveau style then fashionable in the Belgian capital, creating a grand home with clean, rectangular lines that would deeply influence the modernist and art deco movements in the decades that followed.

The Viennese movement aimed to move beyond mere architecture to create complete works of art in which the furniture, lighting, garden, floor tiles, carpets and all other elements of decoration were designed down by to the last detail to produce a unified whole.

To cap it all, Hoffman invited the great Viennese painter Gustav Klimt to create a monumental frieze — "The Tree of Life" — a mosaic encrusted with gold and precious stones that covers the dining room walls. There are also sculptures and paintings by other leading artists of the time.

“The interest of the house is acknowledged all over the world,” said the citation from the U.N.’s cultural agency UNESCO including the building on the world heritage list.

“It is a remarkable illustration of the birth of constructive and decorative modernity, and is frequently presented as an example in schools of architecture all over the world.”