Connect to share and comment

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.

After its completion in 1911, the palace played host to glamorous parties for the cultural glitterati of the time. Guests included Igor Stravinsky, Jean Cocteau and Claude Debussy.

In recent times, however, the palace has fallen on hard times. It has lain empty for years, apart from the live-in caretakers, while the descendents of Aldolphe Stoclet squabble over the property’s future. Estimates have put the value of the house at at least 100 million euros ($137 million), but they may be conservative, given the fact that a single painting by Klimt sold for $137.5 million in 2006.

Ownership of the house and contents is shared among seven Stoclet heirs. The Belgian government recently won a legal battle to prevent some of the heirs from selling off pieces of furniture, but while the house and its contents are now protected, there is no clear idea as to what will happen to the property.

Some of the owners have indicated they would agree to a limited opening to the public, others are firmly opposed, claiming hordes of visitors would ruin the building.

“It’s up to the owners to decide what to do with the property and they have the right to keep it completely private if they wish. There is no obligation linked to the UNESCO decision to open it to the public,” said Pascale Ingelaere, a senior adviser on heritage issues to the president of Brussels’ regional government.

The regional government is hoping, however, to open exploratory talks with the family on the building's future in the next few months, she said.

“We would like to discuss this with the owners, to see to what extent we could envisage in the short- or medium-term an eventual opening to the public,” Ingelaere said.

In the meantime, the regional government is paying almost half the costs of a 1.3 million euro ($1.8 million) program to carry out the most urgent preservation work up to 2014.

For the immediate future, though, there is little chance the authorities would be able to find the millions of euros needed to buy the property, even if the family could be persuaded to sell the property.

“Just now, we have some rather serious budget problems, so it’s not really the right moment,” Ingelaere acknowledged. “However, if ever we had a really serious threat to the building, we’d get around the table and find a solution. We won’t let the Stoclet Palace fall down.”

That at least is a sign of progress in a city that has a bad reputation for protecting its architectural heritage.

While four turn-of-the-century homes built by the city’s own art nouveau genius Victor Horta have been included on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 2000, his masterpiece — the House of the People — was demolished in 1965 and replaced by a non-descript office block.