Rebuilding Notre Dame


MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 23rd of April, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up: rebuilding Notre Dame.

Fire broke out on the roof of the 800-year-old cathedral in Paris about a week ago. The iconic spire collapsed, the fire burned holes the ceiling. And it caused a lot of damage to the interior of the church.

REICHARD: Notre Dame of course is a place of worship and one of France’s top tourist sites. Thirty-thousand people a day make it a point to visit. The day after the fire, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild the cathedral. He said they’d do it in just five years.

But how it’ll be rebuilt. Well, that’s a debate.

WORLD Radio correspondent Jenny Lind Schmitt is here to talk about it. Good morning, Jenny.

JENNY LIND SCHMITT, REPORTER: Good morning.

REICHARD: Well, five years to do repairs doesn’t seem like a long time. Is that timeframe significant somehow?

SCHMITT: Yeah, it is. Paris will host the Summer Olympics in 2024. So President Macron wants the repairs completed by then. Now just imagine what a triumph that would be to reopen the cathedral when the whole world is focused on Paris.

But some construction experts say that’s an arbitrary deadline, without input from people who know what they have to deal with.

So, the takeaway is there’s definite momentum to repair the cathedral.  Macron wants to capitalize on that momentum. For example, he’s already launched a design competition to replace the central spire that fell.

REICHARD: Remind me—that spire was or was not original to the cathedral?

SCHMITT: The spire wasn’t original to when construction began in 1163. It took 200 years to build the whole of Notre Dame. That spire was actually built during renovations in the 1800s.

REICHARD: Quick math: 856 years ago construction began. Astounding to think of that.

SCHMITT: And four hundred years after construction finished in the 1300s, the French Revolution began in 1789. That’s when Notre Dame was taken over by the secular government. The government it used for all sorts of things, including a court and market. Eventually it just fell into terrible disrepair.

Then in the 1830s,  Victor Hugo’s book The Hunchback of Notre Dame brought attention to the sorry state of things. He romanticized the cathedral and that motivated renovation work completed in the late 1800s. That’s when that iconic spire was built.

So when people talk about rebuilding Notre Dame the way it was, the experts are rightly asking: Which version? It has already changed so much over the centuries.

REICHARD: I’ve heard discussion of “modernizing” the cathedral. What does that mean?

SCHMITT: Yeah, the word “modernize” can strike terror into the hearts of art historians and people who love the cathedral the way it was. So, two aspects to that.

One is a question about materials. Should Notre Dame be rebuilt using the same methods used 800 years ago? Or should they use lighter and more fire-resistant materials, like steel beams and titanium panels?

The problem with using original methods is that the beams that burned were all from 200-year-old oak trees that were cured for 50 years. Assuming you could even find enough of those trees today, you couldn’t start reconstruction for several decades. That’s just not going to happen.

REICHARD: And the second aspect of the debate over rebuilding?

SCHMITT: Yeah, the other debate, which I think is more serious, is around what it means to rebuild a government-owned cathedral in 21st-century France. Most people, even if nominally Catholic, have very little to do with the church. Also, there’s a growing Muslim immigrant population. Some secularists say that the medieval Christian France that built Notre Dame has been idealized and is better left behind. One architecture historian at Harvard said, “the building was so overburdened with meaning that its burning feels like an act of liberation.”

REICHARD: Said only as an academic could say such a thing.

SCHMITT: I know. So this rebuilding project highlights the lines of division in France. One side wants to build something that reflects the “France of today.” The other side wants to restore a building that preserves a heritage many feel is getting tossed aside too quickly.

REICHARD: Now, Jenny, you’ve spent a lot of time in Europe, you speak French and I’m guessing you’ve visited Notre Dame in person?

SCHMITT: I have!

REICHARD: I’m curious how this week struck you?

SCHMITT: Well, it’s good the fire has brought attention back to the cathedral. But my own hope and prayer is it will also bring attention back to the faith that inspired the building of it.

Gothic cathedrals were meant to make you feel tiny in the presence of a great God. They were labors of love, built slowly and methodically, and they were the first grand-scale monuments built by free workers, and not slaves.

Not only that. This very week experts were praising the ceiling structure that held back burning wood and saved much of the interior. It was assumed by the builders that at some point the roof would burn. And it was designed so that the roof could burn off and be rebuilt, but the stone structures would hold steady!

So, the building was and is amazing. But ultimately, it wasn’t supposed to be about the building. It pointed us toward the Creator.

REICHARD: Jenny Lind Schmitt is WORLD Radio correspondent based in Seattle. Thanks for joining us today!

SCHMITT: You’re welcome, Mary.


(AP Photo/Francisco Seco) Technicians work in a crane next to the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, Monday, April 22, 2019.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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