Notre Dame in Paris is an impressive structure. Not only is it physically large – the 11th largest cathedral in the world to be exact. Notre Dame has returned to the global spotlight in the past year due to the fire that occurred on April 5, 2019.
The fire has sparked conversations about the importance of preserving historical buildings. It also has given builders, scientists and architects a rare opportunity to learn more about the construction of the building. This fire, as shocking as we found it in the 21st century, is not the first time the old cathedrals existence has been threatened.
The story of Notre Dame is one of persistence, resistance and survival. The building embodies the importance of recognizing our buildings for what they are – more than brick and stone and wood but institutions of history.
Construction of Notre Dame
Construction of Notre Dame Cathedral began in 1163 and took over 100 years to complete. The main hall was constructed first with the towers, embellishments, choir and chapels added over time until it was finally finished in 1345. The cathedral itself was initiated by Maurice de Sully – the bishop of Paris at the time. Pope Alexander III laid the first foundation stone. The famous rose stained glass window that has become synonymous with the building was completed in 1255. The original glass is still around today.
The Value of Notre Dame
Notre Dame acted as a centralized figure in Paris and France. Much like Westminster Abbey in England, many royal coronations, weddings and noteworthy events took place at the church. The island that the church was built on is called Île de la Cité and is one of the last remaining natural islands in the Seine. The church sat at the center of Pairs with much of the city being built with the island in mind.
The saying that, “all roads lead to Notre Dame” is actually true. There’s a marker in front of the church today that acts as “Position 0” where all roads in the city direct to. Notre Dame is truly the heart of Paris.
What Made Notre Dame Special?
There is one key thing about this cathedral that has made it an iconic feature recognized by almost everyone: it’s architecture.
With its stained glass, pointed arches and rib vaulting in the ceiling Notre Dame has always been revered as an architectural masterpiece representing the gothic style. It was the external flying buttresses that made it a true icon as it was the first gothic church to ever have this architectural feature.
The Architectural Masterpiece of Notre Dames Flying Buttresses
Flying buttresses are slanted support beams that are used to support heavy walls and ceilings while still maintaining an open-aired space below. In the case of Notre Dame they supported large towers and limestone walls while still allowing space for giant rose glass and stained glass windows.
Flying buttresses are still used in some modern architecture today such as in dams or when building large stadiums. Overall though they are used primarily to support masonry and stone construction projects. Since we use concrete for much of our construction now they simply aren’t needed.
Construction Materials of Notre Dame
The church itself was built mainly from limestone, wood, iron and lead. The limestone was Lutetian Limestone – the same type that was used to build the Chateau of Versailles. Most of the limestone quarries that were used to harvest the material for construction closed down in the 20th century when concrete took over as a primary building material.
The use of wood in the construction has baffled studiers of the church for decades. Although much of the church – especially the roof – is wooden, there has never been a case of insect infestation or weakening of the structure. While much of the wood did burn during the fire many pieces were barely damaged. For the first time wood from the church can be taken down and studied. Unknown information about 13th-century construction could soon be discovered through these efforts.
The limestone in this building was actually mixed with iron particles to help strengthen and fortify the blocks. Lead was used primarily in the ceiling which is why it melted and collapsed so easily in the 2019 fire.
The 2019 Fire of Notre Dame
During renovations happening on the church in the spring of 2019, a fire broke out in the attic. The fire persisted for 15 hours during which some paintings, relics, statues and other invaluable items were removed from the church and taken to a safe location. Firefighters fought to preserve and protect the two bell towers. After the main spire fell, preserving as much of the church as possible became the main goal.
People watched with shock and awe either from the streets of Paris or as secondary viewers over social media and news channels. They mourned the loss of an international symbol that more than 13 million people visit every year. But the cathedral did not fall.
Believe it or not, this is not the first time that Notre Dame or the Île de la Cité was threatened by fire and destruction.
You can see a bit of the interior oak structure used in the ceiling of Notre Dame, as well as the scaffolding being used by the renovation company at the time of the fire.
The Historical Location of Notre Dame
Notre Dame itself sits on the ruins of an old Gallo-Roman city once called Lutetia. Ruins of an old temple were found in 1710 during an excavation under the choir of Notre Dame. This land is not a stranger to the threat of destruction – and neither is the church itself.
The Historical Fires, Destruction and Pillaging of Notre Dame
The fire in 2019 was not the first that the cathedral survived. There are records of a fire that took place in the early 13th century with rebuilding efforts happening between 1230 and 1240. Moving forward through time, the church grew as a symbol of the monarch as well as wealthy and royal families in France. When the French Revolution started in 1789 the church became a perfect embodiment for the hatred that festered within the French people both with the wealthy and with the Catholic Church in general.
Notre Dame In the French Revolution
As more and more people began to speak out and protest against the church and the wealthy, royal and well off of French society, anger grew. It reached a pinnacle in the 1790s when mobs of French people stormed Notre Dame and announced that the church should no longer be looked at or used as a church. They looted it of its relics, paintings and other valuable goods. 28 statues were beheaded. The mob almost destroyed the church altogether.
The saving grace actually came from Napoleon who, after declaring himself emperor of France, decided to hold his coronation at Notre Dame. He himself, the history books say, was a fan of the church and saw this as one way to ensure its survival moving forward. It worked.
When the revolution ended the cathedral stood tall. Eventually the church began to be used as a church again even though it was still quite run down and ruined after the revolution.
Notre-Dame De Paris – or The Hunchback of Notre Dame
You probably recall the story of The Hunchback of Notre Dame with cartoon gargoyles, musical interludes and a touching story about not judging people by their appearance. The Hunchback of Notre Dame was actually a story written by Victor Hugo in 1831 under the French title, Notre-Dame de Paris. Quasimodo – the hunchback in the story – was supposed to be a representation of gothic buildings in Paris.
The citizens’ judgment and hatred for him was a mirror of how Persians at the time looked down at the old gothic buildings in Paris. They weren’t able to see their beauty for what it was. Hugo’s choice to have Quasimodo seek refuge in the Notre Dame cathedral was a strategic choice to grow interest in the church and save it. At the time many old gothic buildings were being demolished and Notre Dame was still sitting in ruins. When Hugo’s story became popular it renewed interest in fixing up and renovating the church.
There was a huge boom in investment between 1844 – 1864 to restoration efforts to the church. The spire and buttresses were renovated. Gargoyles were never a feature of the church but after Hugo’s book they were added during this project, too. The church we recognize today all dates back to these restoration projects. Without it, who knows what Notre Dame would have looked like.
The Spire of Notre Dame
The spire that burned down in 2019 was not the original. The first spire was taken down in the 1700s because it was no longer structurally sound. During the post-Hugo renovations of the 1800s another spire was added. It was this secondary spire that was constructed using the wood from over 52 acres of trees. The support system was often referred to as a “The Forest” because there was a forest-worth of trees in it. The crossing beams and arching wood support system also mirrored that of a forest.
Examining the Spire Post Fire
When the fire happened in 2019 it created an opportunity for scientists to examine the structure in depth for the very first time. Over 2,000 pieces of timber remained from the fire. Scientists believe that through studying it they can pinpoint where the logs were cut from, when they were cut, how they were grown and how old the trees were when they were harvested for the spire. The lead used in the structure doesn’t provide this ability because it can melt and re-harden over time which messes with identifying the age of the material.
Only time will tell what secrets have lived in the building materials since they were first used. You can be sure that there are some secrets to be uncovered.
Re-Building Notre Dame of Paris
The rebuilding efforts of the cathedral tell us more about modern construction than you’d think. Originally President Macron of France was going to open up an international competition to redesign a new spire. Since then the tide has shifted to staying close to the original. So close, in fact, that modern materials may be forgone completely.
Lumber, as we’ve seen through sustainable construction practices today, can actually be more fire-resistant and long-lasting than other modern-day materials. Some say that if Notre Dame was first built with steel, iron and concrete, we would not have a modern-day Notre Dame to be discussing. Recreating the spire using wood and harvesting limestone to help rebuild damaged parts of the cathedral are now the plan to restore Notre Dame to its former glory.
The old limestone quarries are reopened sometimes under the special circumstances for the renovation of old statues or buildings. Wood would also be used for any other renovations on other parts of the cathedral or the flying buttresses.
What We Can Learn from the Diverse History of Notre Dame
This building is not a stable entity. It has been destroyed, pillaged, rebuilt, loved, hated, burned, and rebuilt again. The church itself is built upon ancient ruins of a time long forgotten. Here we are again in the 21st century rebuilding it once again not with renovation in mind but restoration and preservation.
Whatever drives our modern thinking to be so concerned about preserving the past, the fact that resorting to natural materials is the best way to do it is indicative of the changes currently happening in construction. Wood after all is one of the fast-rising construction material trends of our time. As we strive towards a world built to last, to be adaptable and to evolve with the times, Notre Dame may hold the key to what really makes a building sustainable.