Today marks the two-year anniversary of the April 15, 2019 fire that nearly destroyed Notre-Dame de Paris. To celebrate the beloved Gothic cathedral’s continued survival, which is how I prefer to think of this occasion, I’ve gathered the latest news on the building’s condition and reconstruction efforts. Although France’s coronavirus-related lockdown stopped work from March to June 2020, there has still been plenty of recent progress to celebrate.
As of November 2020, the melted scaffolding that has threatened the structure ever since the fire has now been completely removed. The resolution to the most pressing issue still facing the cathedral this time last year is wonderful news! The scaffolding had been installed around the spire to facilitate restoration work under way in the spring of 2019. During the fire, it melted into a deformed, unstable 200-ton mass of metal with the potential to collapse at any time. Such an occurrence would certainly have destroyed the rest of the church. The scaffolding was a hazard to both the building and the workers, but removing it was also extremely risky. Fortunately, all went well. In a delicate process, specially-trained workers rappelled down from a new scaffolding to remove the more precarious sections piece-by-piece. A large crane then removed the rest. Check out this fascinating time-lapse video of the work, which took from early June through late November.
Protecting the Building
With the dangerous scaffolding eliminated, crews could begin take steps to protect the building. In February 2021, a protective covering made Notre-Dame watertight for the first time since the fire. Installation of bracing to reinforce vulnerable structural elements continues. This work is critical, as the church’s finely-balanced architectural forces were completely thrown off by the damage to the nave vaults. Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris, an organization for North American donors to the cathedral, estimates that this “Safety Phase” of the efforts will last through this summer. Workers are also cleaning up the remaining debris and installing new scaffolding needed for the next phases of restoration.
Ever since the fire, controversy has raged about how to rebuild Notre-Dame’s the roof, attic, and spire. All three were completely destroyed by the blaze. As you may remember, the cathedral was significantly, and often creatively, restored in the 1840s-60s by French architect Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc. In fact, many scholars consider modern Notre-Dame de Paris to be as much a 19th-century building, reflective of 19th-century ideas about the Middle Ages, as it is a truly medieval one. Some have seen this as a good reason to further update it during reconstruction to reflect 2020 ideals. Notre-Dame has been modified before, they argue, so why shouldn’t it be again? This line of thinking centers particularly on the spire, a 19th-century design built to replace, but not replicate, the lost medieval one. The wooden attic and lead roof were original to the structure, but their acute flammability also left then open to calls for reinterpretation, or at least reconstruction in different materials.
At first, the French government expressed interested pursuing updates, provoking a series of outlandish proposals in the days directly following the fire. The suggestion of a rooftop pool, in particular, caused a horrified outcry. The more sensational suggestions continued to make the rounds in the media until July 9, 2020, when the French government announced its decision to rebuild everything exactly as before. The new spire will look exactly like Viollet-le-Duc’s, acknowledging the fact that his design has become as integral to Notre-Dame as anything from the Middle Ages. Moreover, the new spire, attic, and roof will be remade in the same materials as before. More than 1,000 oak trees of the necessary length have already been identified and cut down, although they have to dry for a year and a half before use. Authorities are also searching for additional limestone to match the rest of the church. I’m not sure if the use of original materials includes once again covering the roof and spire in lead, or if French law even still allows building in such a hazardous material. It’s also unclear if the plans allow for fire prevention measures of any kind. I applaud the dedication to authenticity, but we’ve learned our lesson here, right?
According to the BBC, French President Emmanuel Macron credited time constraints with the decision to put things back as they used to be. He said that holding a competition and choosing a design for a new spire and roof would have made it difficult to meet his deadline of a full reconstruction by the Paris 2024 Olympics. Although many people consider his deadline unrealistic, it may have saved the Notre-Dame de Paris we all know and love.
Stepping Back Inside
It’s going to be a long time before most of us are allowed to enter Notre-Dame de Paris again. (In the meantime, I recommend visiting the church of St. Denis, just a subway ride outside Paris.) However, some people have been able to venture inside wearing hard hats. Back in December 2020, Notre-Dame’s choir performed inside the building for the first time since the fire. More recently, a very limited Holy Thursday service took place inside the cathedral on April 1, 2021.
If you are in the United States, you can donate to help the Notre-Dame restoration through the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris.
- “Reconstruction Progress Report“. Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris.
- “Notre-Dame: Cathedral’s spire will be restored to 19th Century design“. BBC.com. July 9, 2020.
- “Notre Dame Scaffolding Removal is Complete“. Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris. December 14, 2020.
- “Notre-Dame de Paris Rebuilding Updates: January & February 2021“. Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris. January 29, 2021.
- Adamson, Thomas and Nicolas Garriga. “Four oaks, one sacred destiny: Recreating Notre Dame’s spire“. ABC News. March 9, 2021.
Last month, I had the opportunity to speak with Jo McLaughlin of Jo’s Art History Podcast about all things Notre-Dame de Paris. I’ll be sure to let everybody know as soon as my episode is released. If you want to hear me talk extensively about one of my favorite subjects, (or you’re just wondering what my voice sounds like), stay tuned!