Notre-Dame Cathedral, an iconic structure built for the ages, survives.

Before the fire: Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris.

No matter how busy people may have been in their daily activities this past Monday, it’s likely that many took a few minutes to read or watch – and then talk about — the devastating fire at the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris.

Along with the Arc de Triomphe, Notre-Dame may well be the most iconic structure in the city. Personally, I know many friends and relatives who have made it a point to visit the cathedral during their trips to Paris.  So it isn’t surprising that so many people all over the world would feel the tragedy in a personal way.

One of them is my brother, Nelson Nones, who has had a lifelong interest in Gothic architecture. Because he is someone who studied architecture and who has also visited Notre-Dame, I reached out to him for his assessment of the fire damage and what may be the future of the cathedral.

Here is what Nelson wrote in reply:

Watching the fiery collapse of Notre-Dame Cathedral’s central spire on TV yesterday was a truly sickening sight. As a student of Gothic architecture, and having visited most of France’s noteworthy cathedrals, I have many fond memories of Notre-Dame. 

The best of those memories was a Sunday evening pipe organ recital held more than 30 years ago, in 1988, which drew such a large audience that my three oldest children and I had to sit on the floor. Nowhere in the United States, I thought, would a classical pipe organ performance – free or not – attract such a large crowd. I didn’t expect my kids, then between the ages of 10 and 14, to be very impressed, but all of us were deeply moved. 

Nave and choir of Notre-Dame Cathedral during the fire on April 15, 2019. (Photo: Filippe Wojazer, Associated Press)

It’s way too early to know the full extent of fire damage, but the first pictures of the cathedral’s interior to be published as the fire subsided provide some vital clues. The stone vaults above the choir and crossing seem largely intact. (The circular opening at the apex of the vault at the crossing, still glowing with fire in the photos, is original construction.)  

However, in the nave, the vault webbing spanning the two pairs of diagonal ribs nearest the crossing has completely collapsed, as has the cross rib between those diagonals. Because the cathedral’s central spire appeared to topple toward the nave before it crashed, it seems this section bore the brunt of the impact. 

It doesn’t appear that any other vaulting collapsed in the nave. The condition of the vaults above the transepts isn’t visible from available photographs, nor is the state of the priceless stained glass rose windows in the transepts and nave.  

The latest reports indicate that the great organ, begun in 1733 and rebuilt by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1864-67, remains intact. Both the great organ and its console, replaced in 2012, are situated in the grandstand beneath the West rose window, between the cathedral’s iconic towers. It doesn’t appear that the organ was damaged by falling debris, nor did it sustain significant water damage as firefighters struggled to prevent the fire from spreading upward to the belfries. 

The fire completely consumed the cathedral’s wooden roof and central spire, which was undergoing renovation at the time. Thankfully, from an architectural perspective the most important parts of the structure are built of limestone. Stones can crack from high heat, but only the stone vaults and perhaps the inner facade of the North tower appear to have received direct exposure to the fire. The integrity of the cathedral’s pointed arches, flying buttresses and piers, which are its primary structural components and are all made of stone, would have been imperiled to a far greater degree had the fire broken out at the base of the building and spread upward towards the roof. 

Cross-section of Notre-Dame Cathedral. (Timothy Adekunle, after B. Fletcher, A History of Architecture, New York, 1931)

In the Gothic style, the purpose of those arches, buttresses and piers is to transmit the considerable weight of stone vaulting vertically toward the ground. This technique replaced thick outer walls with glass windows in order to fill interiors with light and allow vaults to rise toward imposing heights. Notre-Dame de Paris, begun in 1160, was one of the Early Gothic cathedrals. Its vault rises up to 108 feet but was surpassed during the High Gothic period (c. 1200-1250) by Chartres (117 feet), Reims (125 feet), Amiens (139 feet) and Beauvais (159 feet). The builders of Beauvais, in fact, aimed so high (and reduced the thickness of the flying buttresses so much) that part of the vault collapsed in 1284, and the nave was never built.  

We’ll soon know whether Notre-Dame’s rose windows and other artifacts survived, or not. Reckoning the extent of structural damage to the cathedral, and the time it will take to rebuild, will take longer. It’s clear, though, that much of the stone vaulting that the bulk of this magnificent structure was built to support survived, averting an even greater catastrophe by catching burning lumber which would otherwise have fallen and ignited the wooden screens, pews and paintings below.

Nelson’s note, acknowledging that this was a terrible event, suggests that the damage to Notre-Dame could have been even worse, and it is gratifying to know that the structure wasn’t a total loss. Many of us will be interested to hear updates in the coming days about the structural integrity of the building, and the plans to rebuild what has been lost.

If you have any particular thoughts on the aftermath of the fire – or just memories to share of when you may have visited Notre-Dame – please share your comments with other readers here.

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Update (4/16/19):  Subsequent to reports on the condition of Notre-Dame Cathedral the day after the fire, my brother submitted this second set of comments:

Photos taken and published on Tuesday, April 16th, after I wrote to you, provide further insight into the extent of fire damage at Notre-Dame de Paris.

The first (second still photo at https://nationalpost.com/opinion/john-robson-what-the-notre-dame-coverage-kept-missing) shows the nave, crossing and choir. This photo reveals that the entire vault over the crossing collapsed, including the diagonal ribs. Those ribs were still standing in the photo [pictured above] taken during the fire, as was at least half the vault which no longer remains. A closer inspection of the photo leads me to think that much of the eastern half of the vault webbing over the crossing may have already collapsed when the photo was taken, but it’s hard to tell for sure. In any event, whatever remained standing appears to have collapsed later that night. This is not at all surprising considering that the fire originally started above the crossing.

The newer photo also shows a circular hole in the high vault over the South side of the nave, in the third bay from the crossing, which was also visible in the earlier photo but which I didn’t describe in my earlier comments.  I’m quite sure this damage was also inflicted when the spire collapsed.

The second photo (https://nypost.com/2019/04/16/new-photos-show-heartbreaking-damage-inside-notre-dame-cathedral/) shows the north transept as well as the crossing. It reveals that half of the high vault above the second bay from the crossing collapsed.

I have found only one photo of the south transept taken after the fire but it doesn’t show the high vault. However, from news reports, I don’t think any of the high vaulting over the south transept collapsed.

At first I thought that only about 25% of the high vaulting was gone. A more precise figure would be 32% of the high vaulting. Specifically, the total floor area (not surface area) of the high vaults was about 19,830 square feet of which approximately 6,260 square feet (31.6%) no longer exists, based on the plan shown below. The red areas depict the high vaults which fell.

I should add that none of the lower vaults, flying buttresses, pointed arches or piers appear to have sustained any damage from the fire. Structural inspections are still being carried out on the two western towers.

There’s little doubt that additional sections of the high vault sustained so much exposure to high heat that they are no longer structurally sound. The greatest risk is the collapse of more diagonal and cross ribs, which would take down the stone webbing they support, too. It would not surprise me at all if it’s decided to replace nearly all the high vault when the cathedral is rebuilt, if only to allay future public safety concerns. Such a restoration could remain very true to the original masonry and would hardly be noticeable when completed – far less noticeable, I think, than if only part of the high vault is replaced.

The roof above the high vault, and the attic it encloses, will of course need to be completely rebuilt. Here I think the restorers will design and build a replacement that’s similar in appearance, but structurally very different from the one that burned. For example I should think they would want to use structural steel instead of oak framing, for fireproofing (not to mention the difficulty of finding enough virgin oak trees to duplicate the original timber). The original tile cladding was lead which is quite toxic, so I suspect the new cladding will be made of a completely different material such as copper. These changes won’t really affect the cathedral’s architectural integrity, because the old attic was visited very rarely, and cladding material such as copper eventually weathers to about the same color as lead.

A new central spire will rise above the roof, and here is where I think politics will rear its ugly head. The spire which collapsed wasn’t part of the original cathedral; it was built between 1844-64 to replace the original which was taken down in 1786. A Rolling Stone article published on April 16th (https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/notre-dame-cathedral-paris-fire-whats-next-822743/) states, “Any rebuilding should be a reflection not of an old France, or the France that never was — a non-secular, white European France — but a reflection of the France of today, a France that is currently in the making.” It attributes this idea to John Harwood, an architectural historian and associate professor at the University of Toronto, but also quotes Jeffrey Hamburger, an art history professor at Harvard, who dismisses Harwood’s idea as “preposterous.”

My prediction? In the end, the restorers will bow to the secularists when it comes to rebuilding the spire, and put something there as grotesquely ugly (and quintessentially French) as the Centre Pompidou, Louvre Pyramid or Charles de Gaulle Terminal 1. But just like the spire which collapsed on Monday, this decision will be fraught with controversy and will stretch completion of the restoration well beyond the 5 years President Macron promised on April 16th.

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Update (4/18/19): Here are additional observations from Nelson based on new developments at the Cathedral:

I found an aerial view of Notre-Dame Cathedral taken by a drone and published on Wednesday, 17th April. The aerial view confirms the red areas shown in the plan [see above]. Specifically, it is now clear that none of the high vaults collapsed in the south transept, or in the choir.

Aerial photo of Notre-Dame Cathedral, April 17, 2019.

It’s also very clear why the grand organ survived. It is located in the grandstand at the far left of the photo (and the plan), between the two towers. The roof above that area did not burn at all. Apparently the fire began spreading upward from the roof on the east side of the north tower, but the Paris fire brigade managed to contain the blaze there with water guns. The fire (and the water poured onto it) never got any closer to the organ.

Using enlargements of this and other published drone photos, I have also concluded that the black areas which I haven’t identified as gaps in the vaulting are charred debris from the wooden roof, which came to rest at the top of the vaults.  

As an interesting sidebar story, I learned this morning that the parish of Saint-Sulpice caught fire also, on 17th March. See the article here: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-church/paris-historic-saint-sulpice-church-briefly-catches-fire-nobody-hurt-idUSKCN1QY0P1. As best I can tell, the fire occurred at the entrance to the south transept, and damage was minor. The pipe organ, which (like Notre-Dame) is located in the grandstand at the west end of the nave, was nowhere near the fire.

According to the “Great Book of Wikipedia” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_Saint-Sulpice,_Paris#Notable_events), this was an arson attack. RT reported (https://www.rt.com/news/456629-french-catholic-churches-attacks/):

“The fire that hit Saint-Sulpice reportedly started in a pile of clothes left outside the cathedral, before climbing up the door and to the stained glass. The clothes are believed to have been left there by a homeless person. Police said the fire was ‘not accidental,’ but the pastor of Saint-Sulpice argued it was not an anti-religious attack.”

[When I visited Saint-Sulpice in July 2012 during the main Sunday Mass, I saw several “homeless” people hanging around outside the main entrance, begging for money.]

Saint-Sulpice will temporarily serve as the cathedral church for the Diocese of Paris until Notre-Dame is re-opened. Makes sense, because it is the second-largest church in Paris.