31 Notre Dame Cathedral Restoration
For taking the first steps to raise a landmark from the ashes—with care and precision
On 15 April 2019, the world watched in collective horror as flames tore through the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France. The fire would destroy the structure’s signature spire and much of its roof, and leave most of the upper walls severely damaged. But that evening, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed the 800-year-old cathedral would rise again.
“We will rebuild Notre Dame even more beautifully, and I want it to be completed in five years. We can do it,” Macron said in a later address to the nation, meaning that its restoration would be complete the year the city hosts the 2024 Olympics.
Ten days later, scientists from the French government’s Historical Monuments Research Laboratory were on-site, exploring the charred remains so they can help guide the safe restoration of the iconic cathedral.
The project has many obstacles. As recently as January, Army General Jean-Louis Georgelin, Macron’s special representative for the reconstruction, expressed concern over whether Notre Dame could even be saved. There are also environmental concerns: that runoff from lead on the roof and spire may have been polluting the Seine River for centuries. Amid that skepticism and uncertainty—and the disruption of the coronavirus pandemic—Macron’s team has forged ahead, accepting help in some situations and tackling challenges head-on in others:
Meeting the High Cost
While no price might seem too high to restore the world’s most famous example of French Gothic architecture, the budget of €150 million for restoration before the fire might now need to be tripled, according to estimates from the nonprofit Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris. Help has poured in, with donors from across the globe pledging more than €900 million in the first few days. LVMH Group CEO Bernard Arnault alone pledged €200 million and also offered up the organization’s own workers “including creative, architectural and financial specialists to help with the long work of reconstruction and fundraising.”
Experts couldn’t fully assess the building’s structural integrity until specialized workers removed 200 tons of charred scaffolding erected as part of a previous restoration stopped by the fire. That task was scheduled to begin in March but was delayed by three months because of nationwide COVID-19 closures. Work resumed in June, with two teams of professional climbers dangling from ropes to cut away each of 40,000 melted metal tubes, which were then lowered to the ground via a massive crane.
Design Debate? Mais Non
What should the restored cathedral look like? Prime Minister Edouard Philippe announced a global competition last year to design a new spire. Submissions ranged from stained glass to copper to a greenhouse that would offer sanctuary for birds. The French Senate countered by passing a bill in May that would require the rebuilt spire retain the original design. Macron shut the debate down in July, dictating that the original design would stand.
Protecting the Art
In April, Germany said it would help fund restoration of the cathedral’s famous stained glass. While some of the windows show signs of “thermal shock,” according to one of the national lab’s conservation scientists, firefighters went in knowing that windows could explode if they got too wet, so they avoided dousing them. Firefighters followed an established protocol for which works of art to rescue and in which order.
Many of Notre Dame’s treasures, including the Crown of Thorns (believed to have been placed onto Jesus’ head during the crucifixion) as well as paintings and statues, have been safely relocated and will be cleaned, restored and protected until the renovation is complete.
“Certainly this is a difficult period emotionally, but there’s an extraordinary unity of people coming together to not only save this monument, but to learn from it. Notre Dame will be restored! Its artwork, stone and stained glass will be cleaned. It will be more luminous and beautiful than before,” Aline Magnien, director of the Historical Monuments Research Laboratory, told Science magazine. “Notre Dame will come out of this experience enriched. And so will we.”