A Piece of Paris Goes Up in Flames

Firefighters are seen dousing the facade of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris early on April 16, 2019. - The main structure of Notre-Dame cathedral in central Paris has been saved after hours of fire-fighting to put out a devastating blaze, the city's top fire official said late on April 15. (Photo by Zakaria ABDELKAFI / AFP)        (Photo credit should read ZAKARIA ABDELKAFI/AFP/Getty Images)
Firefighters are seen dousing the façade of the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris early on April 16. Zakaria Abdelkafi/Getty Images

I was there the day Notre Dame burned. Well, not there in Paris, but immersed in the live-stream at my computer, where video after video after video whisked me around to see the burning cathedral from every angle, all afternoon. Each one arrived with an outdated timestamp, a reminder that the destruction was just a little more advanced than what I could see. I had to keep reminding myself I was looking into the past, like an astronomer watching a star explode.

At about 10 p.m. Paris time, as Parisians sang Ave Maria in the firelight, Junior Interior Minister Laurent Nunez announced that the stone structure could be saved—the facade, the bell towers, the flying buttresses. Miraculously, the interior was nearly intact, including much of the rib-vaulted ceiling. But the roof and spire were lost. The fate of the windows and the organ is unknown.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo observed that the pace of change in Paris threatened the city’s character. “Monuments are becoming rarer and rarer, and one seems to see them gradually engulfed, by the flood of houses,” he wrote. “Our fathers had a Paris of stone; our sons will have one of plaster.” That call for preservation is a big theme of the book , whose success helped prompt a mid–19th century restoration of the cathedral.

The sentiment seems ridiculous today: Our Paris is a city that changes more slowly than the people who love it. Some people find that stasis smothering; I’ve always found it pleasantly humbling. Paris was there before I arrived, and it will be there after I’m gone. The fire marked a rupture and a reminder that the present can rise up to overpower the past.

Construction on Notre Dame de Paris began in the middle of the 12th century and went on for approximately a hundred years before it opened. But like most 850-year-old buildings, it’s a pastiche. During the French Revolution, the building was converted into a “Temple of Reason” and then a warehouse for wine storage. Its treasures were pillaged and its statues destroyed. “This central mother church is, among the ancient churches of Paris, a sort of chimera,” wrote Hugo in his famous novel. “It has the head of one, the limbs of another, the haunches of another, something of all.” Architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc brought new statues, gargoyles, and the famous spire to the cathedral in his restoration in the 1850s, remaking the historic edifice with his own vision. The cathedral didn’t stop there. Much of the stained glass dated from the 1960s. The bells were brand new. A new reconstruction campaign had recently gotten underway.

Hugo deplored the dilapidation of the structure but stood in awe of the palimpsest. There is “…often the universal history of humanity in the successive engrafting of many arts at many levels, upon the same monument,” he went on. “The man, the artist, the individual, is effaced in these great masses, which lack the name of their author; human intelligence is there summed up and totalized. Time is the architect, the nation is the builder.” In one way, then, the rebuilding that is surely to come is just one link in the long chain of additions and subtractions that preceded it. A big, big link that will take a long time to fill in. Late into the night in Paris, the lattice of scaffolding—part of ongoing work on the structure, and, perhaps, the source of the fire—stood high over the ruined church.