‘It was bound to happen’: Notre-Dame cathedral was beloved but long neglected

Notre-Dame Cathedral, ravaged by a huge fire which toppled its spire Monday before the gaze of shocked and helpless Paris residents and tourists, has been much beloved yet also neglected down the centuries. One expert said the blaze was bound to happen at some point.

'It was bound to happen': Notre-Dame cathedral was beloved but long neglected
Photo: AFP

Even before Monday's colossal fire that destroyed much of Notre Dame cathedral, French author Victor Hugo would have been appalled to see the ravages inflicted by time, pollution and weather on his beloved Notre Dame, the soaring cathedral that adorns the heart of Paris.

The celebrated French novelist wrote “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, published in 1831, largely to draw attention to the glories of Gothic architecture, which in his day was often neglected or disfigured by modern additions.


With its twin towers, stained-glass windows, gargoyles and flying buttresses – a colossal achievement that took more than a century to complete – the cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site that draws between 12 and 14 million visitors each year.

Though the French government currently spends €2 million a year for maintenance work, the conservation to-do list had grown long. Although that pales into insignificance compared with the huge restoration which will have to take place once the scale of the damage from the blaze has been gaged. 

But the reality is that Notre-Dame had been neglected for too long and one French heritage expert believed the disaster was on the cards.

“What happened was bound to happen,” said Jean-Michel Leniaud, president of the scientific council at the national Heritage Institute. “The lack of real upkeep and daily attention to such a major building is the cause of this catastrophe.

“This is not about looking for people to blame. The responsibility is collective because this is the most loved monument in the country,” said Leniaud

Middle Ages specialist Claude Gauvard, also the author of a book on the Gothic masterpiece that dates from the mid-12th century, told AFP there was no overstating the site's cultural resonance.

But she added it had not always been treated with due reverence.

Gauvard is also of the opinion that not enough has been spent on maintenance. 

“The ongoing works finally got started — and it was high time, and perhaps even a little late.

“I went up to the foot of the spire (before the renovations began) and some of the brickwork was disjointed, held in place by a grate to prevent it falling…” she said.

Centuries of time as well as acid rain and pollution had taken their toll on the cathedral's exterior.

In 2017 The Local reported how Gargoyles that had lost their heads were fixed up with unsightly plastic tubes for water drainage. Elsewhere, an entire stone balustrade was missing, replaced by plywood; a pinnacle has crumbled and a stained-glass window's frame was in a sorry state of repair.

Decorative details that had fallen away from flying buttresses were set aside for safekeeping.

The central lead-clad wooden spire, which had risen 93 metres (300 feet) above the cathedral roof and weighed 250 tonnes, was also in need of costly restoration. It now needs to be rebuilt completely after dramatically collapsing during the fire.

The lead, meant to protect the spire from the elements, had been wearing thin.

'Really urgent'

Paris sounded the alarm about the need to restore Notre-Dame several years ago, seeking donations notably from US patrons to help pay for the work, pledging to match up to four million euros donated to a heritage fund.

Through the Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris group, Paris's Roman Catholic diocese is reaching out to Americans “who have a culture of giving and are very attached to this monument”, Andre Finot, a spokesman for the cathedral, said in 2017.

Finot, who knows Notre Dame's every nook and cranny, was leading the funding drive.

“It's really urgent,” he told AFP at the time, during a tour of the devastation caused by air pollution and acid rain.

“You realise that (state funds) are not enough,” he said. By his estimate, the bill could come to at least 150 million euros over 30 years.

Senior Advisor Fundraising for Friends of Notre-Dame, Michel Picaud told The Local in 2017 that turning to Americans for financial help was an obvious move given the amount of interest in the cathedral from across the pond.

“It was put to us that Notre-Dame is a world monument and we could look to raise money for its repair from outside of France,” Picaud said.
“We receive many requests from Americans wanting to know if there is a channel they can use to donate,” he said. “The cathedral is a big part of Paris' history but also a big part of American history in the city.”  

US star power

Notre Dame won some US star power in September 2014 when pop idol Beyonce and her rapper husband Jay Z and daughter Blue Ivy, then two, enjoyed a private tour of the monument.

American tourists were particularly enthralled by Hugo's Quasimodo and other characters in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, immortalised in myriad films, plays and musicals.

While France spread the net wide in search of contributions, “we will still be appealing to the French,” the cathedral spokesman said in 2017. “They should be conscious of the incredible heritage they have.”

After the colossal blaze the French will be left in no doubt about the importance of their sacred cathedral considered the heart of Paris.



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Notre-Dame restoration work begins as Paris cathedral on track to reopen in 2024

France's Notre-Dame cathedral is finally ready to undergo restoration work more than two years after a blaze ravaged the heritage landmark, and remains on course to reopen in 2024, authorities said Saturday, following months of painstaking work to secure the building.

Notre-Dame restoration work begins as Paris cathedral on track to reopen in 2024

The great mediaeval edifice survived the inferno on April 15th, 2019, but the spire collapsed and much of the roof was destroyed.

The focus until now had been on making the cathedral safe before restoration work could begin, which included the strenuous task of removing 40,000 pieces of scaffolding that were damaged in the blaze.

“The cathedral stands solid on its pillars, its walls are solid, everything is holding together,” said Jean-Louis Georgelin, head of the public entity tasked with rebuilding the cathedral.

Scaffolding in the interior of the building as the restoration phase begins. Photo by Thomas SAMSON / POOL / AFP

“We are determined to win this battle of 2024, to reopen our cathedral in 2024. It will be France’s honour to do so and we will do so because we are all united on this goal.”

The aim is to celebrate the first full service in the cathedral on April 16th, 2024 – five years after the fire – despite delays caused by the pandemic and the lead that spread during the blaze.

The Notre-Dame spire, a later addition to the medieval building, was completely destroyed in the blaze. Photos by AFP

Authorities will now call for tenders to select the companies to carry out the restoration work.

The cathedral’s interior walls and floors will also undergo “a thorough cleaning process” later this month.

Notre-Dame’s famous Grand Organ is already being restored, with its 8,000 pipes dismantled and sent to organ builders all over France.

It is expected to be put together again in October 2023, said Georgelin, the former head of France’s armed forces who was appointed by President Emmanuel Macron to oversee rebuilding efforts.