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Notre-Dame Cathedral Will Be Rebuilt the Way It Stood Before the 2019 Fire

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The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed restoration work on Notre-Dame Cathedral, as seen here on July 10, 2020.

Photo by AP Photo/Thibault Camus

The COVID-19 pandemic has slowed restoration work on Notre-Dame Cathedral, as seen here on July 10, 2020.

The French president just approved a historically accurate reconstruction plan for the Gothic cathedral, but work won’t begin until 2021. Here’s what we know so far about how long the Notre-Dame restoration will actually take.

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Despite proposals from architects to rebuild Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris with a contemporary glass spire, a rooftop garden, and other modern touches, French officials have decided to restore it just the way it stood before a fire ripped through the 850-year-old structure on April 15, 2019. French President Emmanuel Macron initially pushed for a modern spire to be rebuilt on top of the cathedral, but he came around and approved plans to rebuild Notre-Dame in a historically accurate manner on July 9, 2020, according to a statement from the state agency overseeing the project, the Associated Press reported.

More than a year after the fire, the Gothic church remains unstable. While the stained-glass rose windows, rectangular towers, and priceless Christian relics all survived the blaze, work on other parts of the structure slowed in 2020 due to coronavirus lockdowns in Paris. After clearing out dangerous lead residue released in the fire, workers are now at the point where they can remove scaffolding that had been in place around the spire for an earlier renovation project.

How long will it take to rebuild Notre-Dame?

Work on the reconstruction plan Macron approved on July 9, 2020, won’t start until 2021. Despite this, Macron still says he wants Notre-Dame reopened in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics, even though experts familiar with medieval restoration work say this timeline is unrealistic and it could take about two decades to rebuild the roof, spire, and parts of stone vaulting that fell through to the main sanctuary.

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The plans presented in July 2020 include replicating architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc’s 19th-century spire that collapsed in the fire with original materials, “to guarantee the authenticity, harmony and coherence of this masterpiece of Gothic art.” This means the spire will again be built with potentially toxic lead, which is raising concerns from both health and environmental groups after the 2019 fire released lead particles into the neighborhood surrounding the cathedral prompting a lengthy cleanup effort.

In order to rebuild with similar materials and techniques used when the rest of Notre-Dame was built in the 12th century, skilled artisans including quarryman, carpenters, mortar makers, and master stonecutters would need to be hired. Because those skills are so specific, new talent would need to be trained—a process that can take up to a decade, according to Jean-Claude Bellanger, the secretary-general of Les Compagnons du Devoir, a company that provides training in such trades. Bellanger estimates that at least 400 new tradesmen would need to be trained to complete the work that needs to be done.

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Either way, it’s not unusual for cathedrals of this stature to take decades, or even hundreds of years to be built. Initial construction on Notre-Dame began in 1163 and wasn’t completed until 1345. More recently, Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia had its cornerstone laid in 1882 and won’t be completed until 2026, after decades of funding issues and a civil war delayed construction. The Gothic cathedral in Cologne, Germany, has ongoing repairs for damage inflicted during World War II. Although the work on each of those buildings is yet to be completed, both are currently open to the public in their unfinished states.

While it is likely that the work on Notre-Dame will continue for many years, it is possible that visitors could be allowed back in eventually, once the structure is deemed safe enough.

To get an idea of the work that needs to be done, take a look at these scenes from Notre-Dame before and immediately after the 2019 fire.

Before

After

Before

After

Before

After

How much will it cost to rebuild Notre-Dame?

French authorities have yet to finalize the budget for the total cost of the renovation work on Notre-Dame, but a major European insurer is comparing the project to the $8 billion worth of renovations currently being done on the British Parliament buildings in London.

“The scaffolding costs are going to be enormous, actually securing the building is going to be enormous. The cost of renovating the [British] Parliament is a similar sort of number,” Robert Read, the head of art and private client at Lloyd’s of London insurer Hiscox, told Reuters.

Immediately after the fire, around $1 billion in donations poured in from individual contributors, as well as companies like Apple and Disney. The wealthy French families behind LVMH and Kering pledged €200 million (US$226 million) and €100 million (US$113 million), respectively. LVMH owns several major French fashion houses, including Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior, while Kering owns other luxury brands, such as Saint Laurent and Gucci.

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Under France’s secular laws, the government owns Notre-Dame. However, the Ministry of Culture has only given €2 million (US$2.26 million) a year for repairs in the past. To contribute to the Notre-Dame fund-raising campaign, individual donations can be made to four official foundations supported by the French government via an online portal.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this article. This article originally appeared online on April 17, 2019; it was updated on July 10, 2020, to include current information.

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