Notre Dame Cathedral — a Paris landmark famous for flying buttresses, bell towers, menacing gargoyles, and soaring spires — was almost destroyed by fire on April 15, 2019. Almost nine hundred years of history was very nearly wiped out, a history that reaches back to medieval and Gothic times — in fact, even to Roman times, if you include the neighboring Archaeological Crypt where you can view vestiges of Roman buildings.
By the year 1160 there had already been a church for centuries at this prime site on Île de la Cité, but in that year the Bishop of Paris decreed that a new cathedral was needed to honor the importance of the Paris church within Europe, and he particularly wanted to create a church in the newly-fashionable Gothic style. Thus, Notre Dame became one of the first structures in the world to sport flying buttresses, allowing for lightweight walls soaring high overhead to create a lofty space.
Let's look a bit more at Notre Dame's history, the fire that nearly ended it all, and the long recovery ahead that will heal the cathedral, the city of Paris, and the country. We'll also show you some over-the-top proposals to replace the roof. Vive la France!
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Just two months after a massive fire ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral a mass was held here, led by the Archbishop of Paris and broadcast on French television. It was a small affair of about twenty people (all wearing hard hats for safety reasons) and was conducted in a side chapel spared by the fire.
President Emmanuel Macron has announced his ambitious plans to complete the restoration of Notre Dame within five years. Obviously, he is motivated to get it done in time for the 2024 Summer Olympics being held in Paris. However, experts are predicting a full restoration will take at least a decade. According to Frédéric Létoffé, the head of a company assessing the fire damage, the restoration will require a huge amount of work, including erecting a complicated scaffolding system with an umbrella to protect the entire roof (which was destroyed by the fire). Bertrand de Feydeau of the Fondation du Patrimoine has said there are no longer any trees in France large enough to replace the medieval beechwood roof beams that burned in the Notre Dame fire.
It was the perfect storm. The first fire alarm was heard at 6:20 PM Saturday, April 15, 2019, just as the cathedral was closing, and the building was evacuated. However, no flames could be found. The second alarm rang at 6:43 PM when security guards saw evidence of the first flames in attic. The fire grew quickly as windy conditions spread the flames; the fierce heat, coupled with the cathedral's position close to the Seine, made it difficult for firefighters to get closer.
Everything happened fast. By 8:00 PM the famous spire (installed in the 19th century) fell. Fifteen minutes later part of the roof collapsed. At 8:30 Île de la Cité (the island on which the cathedral is located), was evacuated. The situation for Our Lady of Paris looked desperate. Fire crews initially thought Notre Dame Cathedral could not be saved, but the world sighed with relief when they were able to preserve the main structure, the exterior walls, the precious stained-glass windows, and the two bell towers.
Close to five hundred firefighters worked nine hours to put out the blaze. Only one firefighter was seriously injured and no one else was hurt, including the 180,000 bees in three beehives located beneath the rose windows, which also survived.
As firefighters continued working through the night to prevent the interior structure from collapsing, another team was busy saving religious and artistic treasures, including a relic allegedly from the crown of thorns. A human chain of firefighters and volunteers retrieved as many treasures as possible. The rescued works were then transported to the Louvre. Chaplain Jean-Marc Fournier, who had helped victims of the 2015 terrorist attacks, was again hailed as a hero after he entered the burning cathedral to rescue relics from the blaze.
Although the actual cause hasn't been determined (as far as we know), it's believed the fire may have been started by an electrical short circuit. Or it may have started by human error. A worker on the longterm renovation that was underway may have left a cigarette behind on the jobsite. As is common in many historic churches, firewalls and modern sprinkler systems had not been installed.
Most of Notre Dame's roof was destroyed, including the famous 295-foot spire, which burned and fell during the fire. The iconic wooden and lead spire was built during a renovation in 1859 by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, who restored a number of medieval buildings in Paris that had been damaged during the French Revolution.
The iconic twin bell towers (which feature prominently in Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre Dame) survived as did the the 340-year old Emmanuel bell. (No relation to the president!) The irreplaceable stained-glass Rose Windows also made it through the fire. In a strange twist of fate sixteen precious copper statues representing the twelve apostles and four evangelists had been removed just days earlier for cleaning as part of a restoration project that was underway.
What could have been a complete disaster was averted and only five to ten percent of the artwork of Notre Dame was destroyed. The lost artifacts include a piece the Holy Crown of Thorns (separate from the main Crown of Thorns, which is safe) and relics associated with Saint Denis and Saint Geneviève, the patron saint of Paris.
Take a walk through the history of Paris. For thousands of years Paris has endured many challenges and hardships, including the fire that threatened to destroy the legacy of Notre Dame Cathedral. But she's a survivor. As experts reconstruct the 860-year-old UNESCO landmark, take this insider's tour that takes you on a special walk through the epicenter of Paris.
The tour starts at her home on Île de la Cité, where you'll discover the history and majesty of this tiny island. Wander past the historic outdoor flower market, the Palais de Justice, and see Marie Antoinette's final home in the Conciergerie prison before you come to the plaza in front of Notre Dame. Marvel at her survival as your guide fills you in on the past, present, and future of this Paris icon.
Like Rome, Notre Dame wasn't built in day. It was an enormously complicated construction process, with new techniques being developed as the building was erected over a period of 182 years. Sully, the Bishop of Paris who initiated the construction, devoted the rest of his life, and all of his fortune, to work on the cathedral. Stage-by-stage, bishop-by-bishop, architect-by-architect, the building rose during the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
The design of Notre Dame Cathedral didn't spring fully-formed from Bishop Sully's brain. The numerous architects, craftsmen, and workers created the style step-by-step as the building arose. The use of flying buttresses to hold up the high, thin walls, was instituted well into the construction process.
With a keen eye, today you may spot changes in design and construction methods as you scan the heights of the walls and towers. Various sculptors over the years created the different styles of statues and gargoyles that adorn the building. Did you know that all the sculptures and even the walls of Notre Dame were originally brightly painted?
Even after Notre Dame was first completed changes continued through the years. During the Renaissance the Gothic style fell out of style and tapestries were installed to hide pillars and walls. Louis XIV and Louis XV also added their personal stamp to bring the cathedral more in line with the styles of their time, including replacing the altar with a new marble version, and replacing some of the original stained glass windows. Nothing was sacred including the spire, which was removed due to wind damage in the mid-18th century.
After the French Revolution, Notre Dame was battered and barely survived as a storage warehouse. Thanks to Victor Hugo's 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, interest in the cathedral was revived, bringing attention to its dire state. Two architects, Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, restored the building over the next 25 years. Although they restored many aspects of the church to their original state they also added new elements, like the replacement spire, which was taller and more ornate than the original.
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The cathedral has been around for 860 years and still received (before the fire) over 9 millions visitors a year. Construction began in 1163 and was barely completed by 1345. The use of flying buttresses (arched exterior supports) was groundbreaking. In 1991 the Notre Dame Cathedral began a major restoration and cleaning project — and it was still underway when the fire broke out.
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