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Building Experts Say Notre Dame Restoration Is Possible — Just Not In Macron’s 5-Year Timeline

After the inferno that destroyed much of Paris’ iconic Notre Dame cathedral, architecture experts are questioning the feasibility of French President Emmanuel Macron’s promised five-year timeline to restore the globally famous house of worship.

Notre Dame cathedral

“That’s just not possible and, in fact, it’s dangerous to promise something like that and disappoint. It’s just political showmanship,” MIT Professor of the History and Theory of Architecture Professor Mark Jarzombek said. “You really need to ask the experts and make this a technical question and not a political question.”

The eyes of the world were on Paris Monday, as TV and telephone screens were filled with images of a fire tearing through the cathedral’s wooden roof and destroying much of its centuries-old French Gothic architecture. French police have said the fire was potentially caused by an electrical short circuit. 

Nearly 500 firefighters working the scene kept the building from total destruction and saved some of Notre Dame’s art collection, including the Crown of Thorns supposedly worn before Jesus Christ's crucifixion and the tunic of St. Louis. The cathedral’s rose window and bell towers were also salvaged.

But France, which owns the building and leases it to the Catholic Church, faces a restoration process that will face the scrutiny of the world. 

Bisnow reached out to contractors, architects and historians to get their advice on taking on what will likely be one of the costliest historical restorations in modern times and something most expect to take closer to 15 years than five.

“It’s a very expensive endeavor to restore an old structure,” said Stantec Senior Associate Andy Pigozzi, who worked on the restoration of Wrigley Field. “The older it is, the more expensive it gets.”

Those interviewed stressed the importance of patience when embarking on a project of this scale — Notre Dame was constructed over the course of the 12th and 13th centuries when attitudes on construction and development were different than the cost-cutting measures of today.

“What’s interesting about studying and appreciating these old buildings is they’re a reminder of how humans had very, very different priorities at different times,” said University of California-Santa Barbara professor of architecture Richard Wittman, who is writing a book about the 1823 fire and century-long restoration of Rome's Papal Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, a disaster similar to Notre Dame's. “Many are wildly impractical and incredibly expensive, far beyond what function demanded.”

There don’t appear to be any financial headwinds for whoever is chosen to lead the modern restoration process. 

Donations have poured in from around the world and surpassed $1B sometime Wednesday, and the French government is planning to introduce legislation next week to provide a legal framework and enforce transparency on future donations, the New York Times reports

“Notre Dame is the image of Paris and was really kind of constructed as the center of French identity,” said Lisa Reilly, a professor at the University of Virginia Department of Architectural History. “Finding money to preserve it isn’t going to be a real problem.”

More Money, More Questions And Problems

Notre Dame cathedral

A massive budget can help speed up the restoration process to an extent, but for something as historic and unique as Notre Dame, money only goes so far. 

“It may seem like a limitless budget, but, depending how they go about it, I feel they’ll have no problem spending that money,” said Harvard art and architecture professor Jeffrey Hamburger. “A lot of the work will be extraordinarily labor-intensive.”

While firefighters were able to save art and much of the cathedral, it is now up to restorers to go in and examine the scope of the damage. 

Boston-based CBT associate principal Christos Coios, who led the design team on a $23M restoration of the 221-year-old Massachusetts Senate Chamber, said it is important to do a "design for the design" just to get a historic project to a point where it is even able to restore.

Designers and contractors will need to make sure the building is structurally stable and there is no risk in rebuilding. 

Stonework near where the fire broke out will be examined for damage and if it needs to be replaced. Initial images show some damage to Notre Dame’s stone vaulting beneath the roof line, but the fact that it remained mainly intact is what likely saved the cathedral from complete destruction. Vaulting and buttresses are interconnected in the Gothic structure to provide support for the exterior walls. 

“From there, the debate begins on what to restore it to,” Coios said. “Do you put it back exactly the way it was? A lot of people want to see it put back the way they remember it, but there’s so much history. It’s a living thing that took two centuries to build, and even in that span, the design and construction evolved.”

Notre Dame

Over the 200 years it took to build the cathedral in the 12th and 13th centuries, there were varied approaches, which is why Notre Dame has an array of building profiles. There are four-story elevations from its original 12th century state while it was later cut down to three stories in the 13th century.  

French architect Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc restored much of Notre Dame in the 19th century and added his interpretation of the cathedral’s medieval spire, which collapsed during Monday’s fire. He also returned two interior bays to their original four-story height and restored the building’s facade, which had been damaged during the French Revolution. The question remains if France builds to le-Duc’s Notre Dame or the medieval version that was completed in 1260. 

“It’s important to remember, even as one calls for unity, the past is not unified and the fabric of the building is not unified. It’s a very eclectic building,” Hamburger said. “I think the historic fabric should be protected but how to do that is a complicated question.”

Whatever design direction the restoration process takes, it then becomes a matter of finding specialists who can restore stonework, stained glass and other materials created hundreds of years ago. 

The years to restoration add up, and, in the instance of venues like the nearly 550-year-old Cologne Cathedral in Germany, can take a half-century (and counting). Repair and maintenance work has been constantly carried out on the venue since shortly after World War II.  

Restorers may also run into criticism from those who don’t want a historic venue like Notre Dame cleaned up too much, running the risk of eliminating its aged aesthetics. There was public outcry during the 1980s when Vatican restorers cleaned Michelangelo’s frescoes on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

“Some called it cultural vandalism of the highest order,” Hamburger said. “My own view is it was nothing of the kind.”

Architectural Purists vs. Fire Safety

Notre Dame from the Seine River

The next issue is how modern (and safe) designers and builders want the latest incarnation of Notre Dame to be. 

The fire broke out in a part of the cathedral known as “the forest,” an attic constructed of centuries-old, dry oak timbers that rapidly went up in flames. There was no fire prevention mechanism in that part of the building. 

“One of the challenges we face in historic preservation and working with structures where wood is dry is that you can’t just take a saw and cut a piece of old, dry wood,” RAAM Construction President and CEO Richard Lara said. “Specialty trades have to understand how it works and that you can walk away and, five minutes later, it’s engulfed in flames.”

While it might seem like a no-brainer for a restored Notre Dame to include more sprinklers and less wood, Jarzombek said there will likely be some architectural purists who want to see the cathedral returned to exactly the way it was leading up to the fire. 

“The 'authenticists' will want it to be like it was, but that only brings us right back to the problem unless you have sprinklers up there and sensors,” he said. “What shocks me a little bit was the firemen went up and had to carry equipment up those spiral staircases. They should have had fire equipment material up there. I’m astonished they treated this like any old barn fire.”

While there might be some resistance in Paris to add to Notre Dame’s aesthetics with a sprinkler system, the team behind the restoration of Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross completed a renovation this week to the nearly 150-year-old house of worship — and included new fire safety equipment. 

The Elkus Manfredi Architects-designed and Suffolk-constructed restoration was partially driven by a push to bring the building up to code without ruining the building’s historic integrity. 

A three-tiered fire system was added where the Boston Fire Department, located behind the church, is alerted if smoke penetrates beams of light in the main cathedral, according to Suffolk Vice President of Operations Chris Gedrich, who worked on the $26M restoration. 

A sprinkler system was added to the Boston cathedral’s attic, but water only flows into the sprinkler if a pre-action monitor, which detects smoke, is alerted due to the attic not being climate-controlled. 

“The biggest challenge in an old building like this is finding ways to hide stuff and make it invisible,” Gedrich said.

Suffolk worked closely with the Boston Fire Department throughout the restoration process, providing the agency with updated plans during construction as a precautionary measure. The BFD conducted firefighter training sessions at the site to make teams familiar with the building.   

“Working with Boston Fire Department and doing those drills brought a general sense of awareness to both them and us on how to navigate the building in the case of a life safety event,” Gedrich said. 

Plenty of uncertainty remains regarding the damage of Notre Dame and how long and what look its restoration will take. What everyone can agree on is that she will return. 

Building experts hope restorers keep some level of fire prevention in mind, whether it is replacing the wood timbers of the forest with steel support beams or adding a sprinkler and alarm system. 

“The amount of money this will cost is so colossal, anything they should have done and didn’t do before, they will do now,” Wittman said. “Pardon the pun, but it’s playing with fire if they don’t.”