It's one of Phnom Penh's most visible architectural relics: a prime project for preservation and a developer's dream. It's known as simply the "Old French Mansion," and now it has a new owner, and a bright future.
After years of interest and negotiations, the FCC Phnom Penh and its parent company Indochina Assets Limited recently obtained the title for the ornate colonial-era villa across from the National Museum at 32 Sothearos Boulevard.
The roughly 1,200-square-meter site is famous for the yellow-hued rococo palace that many Phnom Penh residents have at one time gazed at with appreciation, amazement or concern.
Complete with impressive Corinthian capitals and intricate sculptural designs, the building has sat in disrepair for decades -- a gorgeous, crumbling mansion with an estimated worth of some $2 million.
Now, according to FCC management, the villa will be completely restored to its past glory and become a 24-room luxury hotel with a swimming pool, French bistro and a structural link to the adjacent FCC restaurant.
"We've been interested in the building for about 15 years, since we came here in the early 1990s," says Anthony Alderson, FCC operations director. "We plan to renovate it in 1920s style."
Alderson says a new FCC-affiliated company called Museum View is now conducting surveys and soil tests on the site, and it will soon open bidding to architects for design proposals. If all goes well, building will begin in mid-2008.
The plans are welcome news for architects and preservationists who have long clamored for the building to be saved from neglect and disrepair. Dougald O'Reilly, former director of Heritage Watch, says the building is a signature Phnom Penh landmark and must be respected as such. Other FCC properties all have been certified "Heritage Friendly" by Heritage Watch, and O'Reilly was happy to hear the FCC was taking over 32 Sothearos.
With the massive boom in property value, preservationists like O'Reilly have become increasingly concerned about the disrepair -- and disappearance -- of many colonial era buildings. Although the exact history of 32 Sothearos has been obscured by war and civil strife, the house was probably built in the 1920s, says Helen Grant Ross, an expert on Cambodian architecture. The National Archives have no record of the building's original owner or use.
"It's definitely a landmark. Just about everyone refers to it as 'that run-down colonial building opposite the National Museum,'" says Darryl Collins, a historian at the National Museum. "It's a typical French colonial, but has a style that incorporates a whole combination of styles imported from Europe. It was certainly built in the 1920s, and most colonial buildings of that time are this type of pastiche."
Even in its current decayed state, the building is stunning. Still, renovators have a Herculean task ahead.
Inside, gaping holes riddle the ceiling in many areas, exposing the old wooden rafters. The fading blue walls are pocked and covered with graffiti -- drawings, English lessons, names and dates -- from previous bodyguards and Royal Gendarmerie who were once lodged at the site. The decorative tiles on the floor are loose and cracked in several places. A grand staircase, blocked by a pile of broken shutters, sweeps up to the second floor where characteristic Cambodian tile swathes the floor in an expansive orange-and-white checkerboard.
"It is one of the structures most photographed by visitors to Phnom Penh and the city would be much worse off were it destroyed," O'Reilly says. "These are the kind of structures that lend charm to the city and increase its appeal as a tourism destination. Every time one of these structures is torn down the city loses an opportunity to attract visitors as well as losing a part of its identity."