Some Thoughts on the Damage to Notre Dame de Paris

Well, to paraphrase, since this is a PG-rated blog, “nagdabbit!” Followed by, boy I hope this was not arson. Then, medieval churches’ greatest enemy strikes again. Then I cried.

I’ve only seen the outside of Notre Dame. The line was so long, and the day so hot, that I opted to go to the Roman site under the church rather than stand in line for two hours in the sun. I’ve seen a number of other Gothic cathedrals, and didn’t feel the need to get heat-stress just to view this one along with thousands of strangers. (I got heat stress the next day, after going back to the Louvre. It was near 100 F on the city streets, with a hot wind and dust swirling from the park near the museum.)

One of the single greatest causes of, ahm, unplanned urban renewal in the pre-modern era was fire. Without pumps that could move water and apply constant pressure to it, the only thing to do was 1. bucket-brigade, 2. tear down buildings closest to the fire to keep it from spreading, 3. pray, 4. all of the above. Some of the earliest building requirements, such as a tile or slate roof, or covering the facade with plaster to cover and protect beams, or “cover fire hours,” (curfews) came from those fires. Multi-storey houses often kept ladders under the eves of the first floor, along with buckets, in case the fire tocsin rang in the night. Certain church bells would be designated as the fire bell, and when that note sounded, everyone stopped what they were doing and hurried to fight the fire.

Those who have read McCaulay’s Cathedral or Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, among other books, know that fire and cathedrals were not strangers. Lightning did in a number of cathedrals, since they happened to be the tallest things around in many places. Ringing the bells and appealing to St. Barbara to ward off the storms didn’t always work (and on occasion opened up positions for new bell ringers…).

The wood above the stone is the challenge… Fair Use under Creative Commons noncommercial 4.0 Original source unknown. Click link for source.

You notice the wooden frame above the vaulting? That holds the roof up. The roof was usually covered with lead. Notre Dame still had the lead. Other places have switched to copper (is it green? Copper) or tile (Stephfansdom, Vienna) or even in a few cases slate or a slate-looking tile.

The vaults that we see from inside, and often marvel at, are not the roof. Instead, a wooden framework was constructed over the stone to protect it from rain and snow and ice. Lead or copper, less often slate or tile, then covered the wood. Water ran off the roof and out through drains on the sides, occasionally tipped with gargoyles. Some are monsters, others are just mildly obscene, or insulting to someone who irked the stone mason.

The vaulted ceiling is not meant to carry additional weight. This is one of the major concerns at Notre Dame at the moment—the weight of the burned timbers and water resting on top of the surviving vaults. That needs to be removed post-haste, carefully, and some cover draped over the top. Sort of a gigantic tarp. [Imagines gothic cathedral with bright blue “FEMA” tarp. Snickers.] Ahem, or other suitable, rain resistant protective layer. The weight of the vaults travels down the columns and the flying buttresses, thence to the ground. I suspect they will use cranes and very, very careful sequencing to lift off the remaining timbers and debris.

Another concern after fire is the status of the stones that were exposed to the flames and then quenched. Heating then rapid cooling can fracture stone, shattering some and “just” weakening other kinds. Expert masons will have to look at the structure stone by stone and decide which can be reused and which have to be replaced, in what order, and how.

In some ways, they will have to reverse the original builders steps, creating a wooden scaffolding under the arches, then removing the stones, and replacing them. Ditto the walls, the facade, and other damaged places.

The window lead will have to be checked to see if it softened and deformed. If so, out come the windows and they will be cleaned and then reassembled. Any lead that melted, dripped into the nave, transept, and choir will be located, removed, and the entire inside cleaned once the structure is stabilized.

Then comes the controversial part: how do you restore it? To what it was on April 14, 2019? To what it was before the crossing tower was “improved” with the neo-Gothic spire? Some have suggested that it should be “modernized” in some way. I have a feeling the donors will insist on going back to April 14, 2019’s structure and interior. If not, the Yellow Vest riots may seem like peaceful prayer meetings in contrast to what the tourists and other do.

Not everyone is in favor of restoring Notre Dame. Some see it as in need of change, turning into something that better fits modern, secular, increasingly minority France. Cultural critics point out that it has played a number of roles in history, and that it has changed over the thousands of years churches stood on that site. Since that is the case, should it be updated to reflect the beliefs of people in Paris today?

I know my thoughts on that, having seen some of the “updates and improvements” done to things like the Louvre and Reichstag. A loud, firm, and resounding “NO”, to start with.

As I type this on Thursday, Maundy Thursday for the Western church, the word is that an electrical short-circuit started the blaze. Why the smoke detectors didn’t go off earlier puzzles me, although I would not be surprised if it turns out that some detectors had been deactivated because of the ongoing restoration of the crossing spire. That’s not uncommon, because sawdust, welding smoke, and other things can cause false alarms.

Another questions is: what will become of the churches that are attacked, desecrated, and vandalized every day in Europe? Some of the other great cathedrals have had people set fire to them, and smear them with foul substances, or attack the altars and priests and parishioners. Will this draw attention to them? Or will the relief (“It’s not terror. Oh good!”) and efforts at rebuilding be allowed to overshadow all the other losses, until a Chartres, or Cologne, or Sienna is attacked?

I do know that a lot of people are meeting to look at emergency procedure plans, fire suppression options and system upgrades, and so on. A number of phones are going to start ringing, asking about misting systems, sprinklers, water tanks, and the like. So good will come out of this in other places, I firmly believe.

Some are wondering if this is a warning to the Western Church, to come back to G-d before all is lost. Others see it as a punishment for failures. Perhaps it is both, sort of the swift kick in the rump that leads to a step in the right direction. Christians in western Europe might reevaluate their faith and lack of worship attendance, and Protestants in particular reconsider how watered down and ugly* some of their worship ways have become. One can hope.

All honor to the firefighters who did so much. Major credit to the men and women who risked going into Notre Dame to carry out treasures even as parts of the vaults fell in. And a salute to those who prayed, sang hymns, and waged spiritual warfare on behalf of the church and the fire crews.

*This is an interesting, and in some ways gut-wrenching, piece about how a church failed a seeker and sent him to Islam. I sympathize about the lack of beauty in some modern, up-to-date worship spaces and services. I strongly disagree with some of his understanding of Islam and its place in the West, but his disappointment with the church – and the Church – rings very true.



24 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the Damage to Notre Dame de Paris

  1. Inflammables, more like. Lighter fluid and gasoline are more accelerant than fuel.

    I invoke the Fisher King.

  2. In the relatively recent past (less than 35 years) the UK saw serious fires at both York Minster and Windsor Castle, the former bearing a distinctive resemblance to that at Notre Dame (though caused by a lightning strike). In both cases a great part of the fire was in the timber structures and it is generally thought that it was the collapse of the roof at York Minster that helped bring the fire under control (by releasing the flames and hot gasses).

    I mention these because they demonstrate that the necessary skills to carry out a faithful restoration of such structures still exist and that it is undoubtedly possible to restore Notre Dame to its pre fire condition. Whether this should be done is another matter: personally I think it should, if only because I lack trust in anyone’s ability to incorporate innovations, or indeed in the possibility of a consensus being reached for anything other than a faithful restoration.

    Since the possibility of arson has been mentioned, this is exactly what happened in York Minster’s 1829 fire (an escaped lunatic was arrested 4 days later). And as for emergency procedures and plans, whilst they are absolutely necessary things may still not work out as hoped (see Windsor Castle 1992).

    • The ability to restore Notre Dame certainly exists. Getting through the bureaucracy and “cultural critics” to actually put the church back together, well, that’s what will take the patience of Job, and the intestinal fortitude of a special forces sergeant eating “on the economy.”

  3. Once the Paris prosecutors proclaimed “accidental fire start” before the flames were out, I’m taking a pound of salt for any officially announced cause for the fire. (Do they have psychic fire investigators? I’m impressed.) Independent reports say the contractors made sure power was cut in the restoration areas when nobody was working. Apparently, restoration work was on hiatus for Holy Week, too.

    FWIW, a long-ago article in Fine Homebuilding described two fires at a house at finishing stages. The first one destroyed the place, with the second caught in time to prevent disaster. This was in a Victorian with lots of exposed wood. In both cases, linseed-oil soaked rags were the culprit, left open inside. I doubt they’d be using linseed oil in the roof framing.

    • Probably not on the linseed oil, although I remember well all the safety lectures about oily rags and why they only go into metal containers with a tight-fitting lid.

      And yes, the speed with which the “purely an accident, let’s move on shall we” initial leak came out does make one raise an eyebrow.

    • WRT fires in old buildings.

      It may not pertain to Notre Dame, but perhaps…

      We lived for 35 years in downtown DC, moving in 10 years after the riots. Housing is cheaper that way, even if it needs work. It is a four story townhouse, built about 1873. It started out as very high-end, what with 11 fireplaces and a nice central atrium, A/C in the old days. The first two stairways had 39 steps.

      Some of the houses had succumbed to fire on the block, usually assumed to be druggies, whether winter or not. Whatever they do with that spoon and matches is not safe for old houses.

      But some of the fires were in good houses being renovated. Turns out that pigeons over the years have built nests under the eaves and on the far side of the exterior brick. Those disintegrate over the years and fall down behind the brick. A cutting torch taking down an old fire escape or a reciprocating saw hitting a nail, emitting a spark, can start a fire which may well smolder and appear in a few hours.

  4. One of the most interesting and educational classes I took in college was “History of Architecture.” I was looking for an easy “A” humanities course, and being a junior engineering student, this sounded better than anything else.

    It was taught by a professor who truly loved the subject and consisted of slides (yeah real film, pre-powerpoint) and a lecture. One of his points was one of things that drove the medieval cathedral construction boom, both romanesque and gothic, was that the older basilica style cathedrals kept burning down due to wars or natural causes. Thus stone became the structural material of choice rather than timber.

  5. The age of the timbers played a part. Dry doesn’t begin to describe them. I, for one, would like to see it restored to as was before the fire. Any attempts to ‘upgrade’ it would be a rat’s nest of competing interests, which would probably leave the completion sometime in the 22nd century… sigh

    • Suitable timbers for roof framing might be hard to find. It would be a-historical, but steel framing could be substituted.

      I suspect your timeframe is correct, regardless of the approach.

      • There should be timber of the correct age available, but it will take negotiation. Oxford and Cambridge both planted replacement forests, IIRC. When the oaks but for pilings and main timbers finally gave up, 800-1000 years later, the planted trees would be mature and ready. If the reserve forest groves are still there and the proper permits can be obtained, then old growth plantings can be used for something like their intended purpose. Failing that, there may be some old-growth wood available in North America that would fit the bill for size and grain density. That’s also an intended feature of the national forests, never mind the shrieking tree-huggers.

        • France still has a lot of oak which is probably what they would use for the roof. (European oak is my material of choice for my internal woodworking projects and all the stock seems to come from France; English Oak is harder to find and more expensive). I doubt that they’ll have any problems in sourcing the materials (100 year old trees are probably the best as they are still too young to have started to hollow out) but they could be adventurous and use steel beams for at least part of the work. I think that this is what was done when Windsor Castle was repaired after it’s fire.

          What I am unsure about is whether they can use green timber or would want seasoned wood. It might not be so easy to source the latter in the short term (at least in the large sizes needed and especially if they prefer air dried timber).

          • For fire resistance, composite modern wooden beams or solid oak would be better than steel, but the weight… They’d probably need seasoned wood because of the weight, but that’s just based on what I’m reading in the news articles, not expert knowledge.

  6. While I share your suspicions at the speed with which the French authorities labeled the fire accidental, there’s also reason to think they were right. An arsonist would have started a fire somewhere that is accessible to the public, and would probably have directed it at the sacred areas: the art collection, the relics, the altar. This fire seems to have started in the attic, where I’m guessing that visitors can’t go, and the roof and support framework suffered most of the damage. Also, the staff actually found the fire before it reached the spire, but couldn’t stop it. The first fire alarm went off at 6:20pm local time, but the system gave the wrong location so staffers who investigated found no fire and thought it was a false alarm. Half an hour later there was another alarm, and they found the fire burning strongly in the attic.

    And after the fire was finally extinguished, it appears the initial judgement was right. Paris police now say that evidence points toward a short circuit in old wiring, somewhere near the base of the spire.

    • I’m probably too used to the NTSB and my local arson investigator, both of whom pretty much never reach even an initial supposition until a week after the incident. Granted, they generally are not looking at government property…

  7. Re the guy who converted to Islam…he seemed motivated more by aesthetic considerations and by the relative self-confidence of the believers in each religion than by any estimate of the truth value of each. I expect there are quite a few people like that…I knew a woman who has become a follower of Hinduism, motivated largely it seems by her perception that it is much more beautiful than her parents’ Protestant faith.

    • The woman has never heard of tugee (or thugee), apparently. If memory serves, there was not much outcry in India when the British eliminated that subsect of Hinduism.

      • Not sure whether or not she’s familiar with thugee, or with suttee, for that matter….”progressives”, into which category this person definitely falls, tend to evaluate the practices of other cultures a whole lot more leniently than those of their own.

        “Beauty” in the sense I used it above is entirely aesthetic, rather than having necessarily anything to do with either ethics or metaphysical truth. People do want to believe, I think, that whatever is beautiful must be good and true, but not necessarily so.

    • If you’ve spent time in a Buddhist country, the Buddhists here that have no cultural ties to Buddhism want to make you head desk with some regularity.
      Especially when they go all SJW invoking “blaming the victim”.

  8. Some sites are claiming a billion dollars have been pledged to the reconstruction, so far.

    I hope that before anyone actually turns loose any money, they understand who is getting it.

    As I understand it, the building is owned by the French government, though it is unclear whether it’s the nation or the city. If that money goes into their annual treasury pool, whatever they call it… the reconstruction may not see a single franc of it.

    As for rebuilding it within five years… Macron is pulling that number out of his posterior.

    • Unless the laws regarding Notre Dame are different from standard, the building belongs to the country of France. The city/county/township do not own churches, just the nation as a whole. The congregations are responsible for the interior, which is why so many churches have boxes begging for donations in order to repair plaster, fix pews, get the organ working again, restore damaged statues…

  9. Analysis from the NYT: . Synopsis: failure to take the hazard seriously.

    The fire alarms (known vulnerable to false alarms) could have been supplemented with cameras whose range extended into the near infrared. Halon-type systems were possible (even if the environmentalists don’t like them). Sprinklers were rejected as a blemish on the historic building. What about intumescent coatings? Would they have weighed too much? Judgements about ‘inauthentic’ have to be reconsidered in the light of what actually happened.

  10. Oh, the organ is a Cavaille-Coll instrument which means that even with the modifications since its building it is an irreplaceable treasure, nearly the equivalent of a Strad or Guarneri.

Comments are closed.