One Year After Fire, Notre Dame’s Rebuild Is in Limbo
One year after a devastating fire ravaged its roof and central spire, Notre Dame Cathedral is facing a new threat: the coronavirus.
The cathedral marked the first anniversary of the fire on Wednesday with the ringing of Emmanuel, its famous bell, at 8 p.m., the hour of the day when Parisians come to their windows to applaud health-care workers in their fight to slow the disease.
Behind the scenes, the virus is disrupting efforts to stabilize Notre Dame at a critical juncture: the removal of a massive scaffolding where the fire started. Its charred skeleton still looms over the cathedral, and its collapse would be devastating.
Restoration workers were already racing against the clock before France went into lockdown on March 17. Now they have been benched for the foreseeable future.
Notre Dame’s limbo has raised questions about whether France can meet President Emmanuel Macron’s timetable for restoring the cathedral to its former glory in time for Paris to host the 2024 Olympic Games.
“I had promised we would rebuild Notre Dame within five years. We will do everything to meet this deadline,” Mr. Macron said in a video address posted on Twitter Wednesday, calling the cathedral a “symbol of our people’s resilience, of our capacity to overcome adversity and get back up on our feet.”
France has already been forced to sacrifice a week of commemorations that were designed to remind the world of the struggle to repair the grand cathedral. Holy Week celebrations—including a procession from Notre Dame across the Seine river to the Saint Germain l’Auxerrois church—were canceled. An exhibition of children’s drawings scheduled to be inaugurated by the Archbishop of Paris in front of the cathedral on Wednesday, was postponed, a spokeswoman for the diocese said.
So far, authorities have cashed in about €188 million ($205.9 million) of the €902 million they have received in donations and pledges to fund the rebuild. An official with the Notre Dame Cathedral Conservation and Restoration Authority said it has legally binding commitments with nearly all the potential donors.
Workers were just days away from starting to dismantle the scaffolding when the lockdown began. The 350-ton metal structure was initially erected as part of a plan to restore the central spire that was engulfed when the scaffolding caught fire a year ago. The fire quickly spread across Notre Dame’s majestic roof, sending flames and a giant column of smoke into the Parisian skyline.
Notre Dame’s spire collapsed, along with its roof, shocking the world. But the scaffolding survived, burned and twisted by the fire. That made it hard to remove without risking further damage to the cathedral.
A new scaffolding has been erected around the burned one so that workers known as “squirrels” can rappel down and remove it piece by piece. In January, Jean-Louis Georgelin, the general appointed by Mr. Macron to oversee the restoration, said he expected workers to finish removing the old scaffolding by May or June.
This target no longer seems attainable, said the official at the Notre Dame Cathedral Conservation and Restoration Authority.
With the old scaffolding still in place, workers won’t be able to inspect the cathedral’s vaulted ceiling closely for at least another several months. Authorities worry the ceiling could collapse due to heat as well as water used to douse the flames. That moisture has penetrated the mortar between the limestone blocks that arch over Notre Dame’s nave.
“We are going to stop work during two months out of sixty,” Gen. Georgelin said Wednesday, discussing the restoration’s timetable. “It is up to us to be more rigorous, and find ways to roll up our sleeves.”
So far, workers have reinforced the cathedral’s flying buttresses with huge wooden frames to prevent the walls from collapsing in case the vaults give way. They have also covered the ceiling with a tarpaulin, and placed temporary covers on the upper windows of the nave and apse to keep rainwater out.
The north, west and south gables were also reinforced with wooden structures, along with two of the cathedral’s internal pillars.
Once the old scaffolding has been removed, workers will need to finish clearing the remaining debris that fell from the roof and spire—charred wood and burned metal—onto the cathedral’s ceiling. They will then build yet another scaffolding, this time inside the cathedral, to restore the vaulted ceiling.
No decision has been made on how to rebuild the roof and spire. Days after the fire, Mr. Macron said the country should consider rebuilding the cathedral with a contemporary touch.
Architects from around the world suggested new designs. Some proposed adding a contemporary roof and spire made from Baccarat crystal or stained glass, others a massive flame in carbon fiber and gold leaf.
Philippe Villeneuve, the architect who oversees France’s historic monuments, wants to see the spire rebuilt exactly as it was before. Last fall, he declared on French radio that he would resign rather than allow a modern spire to deface Notre Dame.
Mr. Villeneuve should “shut his mouth,” Gen. Georgelin said, speaking a month later at the National Assembly, “so that we can serenely make the best choice for Notre Dame, Paris and the world.”