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The stones of Paris

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The stones of Paris

For centuries, the French have been using a particular local stone to create the distinctive buildings of their capital. But growing demand from around the world is threatening to exhaust the quarries in question. John Lichfield reports

They no longer know Paris who only Paris know. To see fine buildings made from the warm, elusive, cream-grey stone of the French capital, you once went to the Louvre, or to the Invalides or to the Place de la Concorde. Now, to contemplate the glories of "Paris stone", you can also visit Los Angeles or Las Vegas, Kuwait, Knightsbridge or Marlow in Buckinghamshire. The stone which illuminates the "city of light" is rolling around the world.

"Paris stone", which actually comes from a half-dozen limestone quarries in the Oise, 25 miles north of Paris, has become an architectural fashion accessory for the wealthy and famous. Its cheaper varieties are also much in demand in Britain, where they compete success-fully with local stone as a versatile, and economical, building material.

Michael Jordan, the retired basketball superstar is the latest celebrity to refit his mansion in Los Angeles with so-called Paris stone. The Paris-born founder of the online auction company eBay, Pierre Omidyar, has clad a whole mansion with Oise stone, in the Nevada desert near Las Vegas. The University of Stanford in California is constructing several new buildings which will be covered with one of the finest grades of Lutetian limestone, hacked from the earth 5,600 miles away at Saint-Maximin, near Chantilly in the Oise.

From a series of big holes around this village came the stone which fashioned most grand Paris buildings from the 17th century onwards, including parts of the Louvre, the Place de la Concorde and Les Invalides. There are some exceptions, such as the monumental blocks for the Arc de Triomphe, which came from near Beaune in Burgundy, 200 miles to the south. However, the quarries of Saint-Maximin can authentically claim to be the birthplace of the largely stone-built Paris that we know today. The southern Oise provided 90 per cent of the stone for the Haussmann era (post-1860) avenues and streets which give the French capital its sweeping and uniform style (and its elusive colouring, ranging from shining white to nicotine yellow).

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