Notre Dame’s new spire is underway, with hopes of reopening in late 2024


BRIEY, France — Nearly four years after a fire destroyed the more than 850-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the monument is slowly being put back together. With a reopening date set for December 2024, workers are carving statues and cranes hoisting bricks to repair the vaulted ceilings. And about 200 miles away, in an industrial wood workshop in rural eastern France, carpenters are assembling what will become the cathedral’s new spire.

“The dimensions are gigantic,” said Philippe Villeneuve, a chief architect of the reconstruction of Notre Dame, at the construction site in Briey last week.

Workers climbed ladders on Thursday and carefully assembled the future base of the spire, an X-shaped structure made of thick oak beams, measuring 15 meters on its longest side.

“I often think of it as the nuclear core of the construction site,” Villeneuve said. “There is absolutely no room for error.”

The spire itself, cone-shaped and covered with lead, will reach a height of more than 90 meters once all the elements have been assembled in the cathedral in Paris.

It would be fair to say that France, if not much of the world, is watching.

The day of the fire, April 15, 2019, will remain deeply etched in French memory. As the spire collapsed, bystanders watching from the banks of the Seine wept in silence. Millions of people followed the scenes on television in disbelief. Many French people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news.

The fall of Notre Dame is a blow to Paris and all that it represents

“People couldn’t believe it was possible – but unfortunately it was,” recalled Dany Sandron, an art historian, who was among the crowds at the Seine and worked at the construction site in the years since.

Notre Dame was Paris’ most visited tourist attraction, a masterpiece of Gothic architecture that attracted more than 12 million visitors each year. But many people in France also embraced it as a cultural symbol, a visual anchor of Paris and a reminder of the Catholic traditions that underpin a proudly secular republic.

What the fire at Notre Dame looked like

The cathedral’s iconic bell towers and elaborate stained glass window withstood the flames. The crown of thorns, which Jesus is said to have worn during his crucifixion, was saved. But the roof collapsed, the medieval wooden interior was obliterated and many artifacts were lost. The cause of the fire remains unknown.

Standing in front of Notre Dame that night, the smoke still billowing, President Emmanuel Macron vowed, “We will rebuild this cathedral.” He hoped it would be ready for visitors in July 2024, when France hosts the Summer Olympics. But French officials say they are now aiming for the end of 2024.

“We will have two extraordinary events in France in 2024: the Olympics and the reopening of Notre Dame,” Jean-Louis Georgelin, the French army general in charge of overseeing the project, told journalists visiting the woodworking workshop on Thursday. . “The image of France is at stake in those two events.”

Macron promises to rebuild Notre Dame, but Paris monument suffers ‘colossal damage’

Villeneuve was involved with Notre Dame before the fire and oversaw repair work since 2013. He was not in Paris when the first fire engines rushed to the cathedral. But as soon as he heard it, he jumped on the last train from the Atlantic coast.

“Luckily I didn’t see the spire fall,” he said. “I don’t think I would have really recovered from that.”

Over the next few days, he and his team identified the most destabilized parts of the cathedral. While workers secured the building for the next two years, French architects, church representatives and politicians squabbled over reconstruction.

As Notre Dame rises from the ashes, a tug of war over its transformation

Some architects suggested reconstructing the collapsed roof as a conservatory, or with stained glass instead of wood, or even replacing it entirely with a swimming pool. Not all of those proposals seemed serious, but proponents of modernized design argued that the fire offered a chance to start over, as earlier generations of architects had done.

For many Parisians, Notre Dame Cathedral has been the heart of the French capital for more than 800 years. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

Notre Dame has undergone multiple transformations in its more than 850-year history. Over the centuries, the windows of the cathedral were widened and the flying buttresses reconstructed. After an old spire was removed in the 18th century for safety reasons, the cathedral went decades without its now most iconic feature. Under the architectural direction of Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Notre Dame underwent such dramatic changes in the 19th century that many scholars today say the building is more representative of that period than of its medieval origins.

The story behind Notre Dame’s towering spire and the 30-year-old architect who was commissioned to build it

Successive French presidents have been eager to leave their mark on the center of Paris, personally championing projects such as the Louvre Pyramid and the Center Pompidou. Macron, who had been chosen on a platform of renewal two years before the fire, suggested a “contemporary architectural gesture” in the new spire design. But after a backlash — including a threat from architect Villeneuve to resign — he embraced a reconstruction that accurately replicated the original.

However, it will look different in some ways.

“Before the fire, we had a very dirty cathedral – walls that looked almost black or dark gray because of the pollution from candles and smoke,” says Sandron, the art historian. “Now the color of the stones is very light.”

Aurélien Lefevre, who leads a group of carpenters working on the reconstruction, said the project remains a challenge, but not one that is insurmountable. Problems can arise at any stage, so the trial run of the wooden beam assembly last week was a crucial step.

“We’re not immune to forgetting something,” Lefevre said.

Particularly for younger carpenters, participating in the project could be a unique opportunity, he said.

Nearby, dozens of carpenters were sawing, hammering and polishing wooden beams from centuries-old oaks. More than 1,000 carefully selected trees from all over France were felled for the reconstruction.

At the edges of the workshop, the skeletons of walls for local construction projects had been moved aside to make room for the project that will remain the priority for the coming months.

Outside, Villeneuve rattled off a list of project milestones: “The galleries are done, the north and south transepts are done.”

Other parts – including the spire, decoration, vault and furnishings – remain works in progress. But after the shock and devastation of 2019, any sign of progress matters to those who care deeply about the building.

“It’s balm on my scars,” Villeneuve said. “By rebuilding the cathedral, I am also rebuilding myself.”

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