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Notre-Dame Cathedral’s Restoration Progresses After Devastating Fire

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The reconstruction site of Notre-Dame in November 2021, more than two years after fire tore through the famous cathedral

Photo by Sun_Shine / Shutterstock

The reconstruction site of Notre-Dame in November 2021, more than two years after fire tore through the famous cathedral

Plans to rebuild the Gothic cathedral with modern elements recently sparked controversy. Here’s what we know so far about the Notre-Dame restoration.

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It’s been nearly three years since a fire ripped through Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris on April 15, 2019. Now that the 12th-century monument is secured, reconstruction efforts are underway. But recently approved plans for interior renovations—including adding contemporary artwork and modern lighting—sparked criticism from opponents that compared the changes to a “woke Disney revamp.”

How is the restoration work on Notre-Dame progressing?

While the stained-glass rose windows, rectangular towers, and priceless Christian relics all survived the blaze, the Gothic church remains closed to the public as reconstruction continues.

By November 2020, workers successfully removed all the scaffolding that had been in place around the spire for an earlier renovation project when the fire broke out in 2019. 

In September 2021, the government agency overseeing the reconstruction of Notre-Dame announced that the temporary structures built to secure the cathedral’s iconic towers, vaults, and walls were complete. Now the cathedral is finally stable enough for reconstruction efforts to begin in earnest. According to the Associated Press, work to restore the organ and other parts of the cathedral are expected to begin this winter.

Notre-Dame’s controversial restoration plans

On December 9, 2021, France’s National Heritage and Architecture Commission approved plans for Notre-Dame’s interior renovations, according to Agence France-Presse. Those proposed changes include modern lighting effects like projecting Bible quotes onto the walls, as well as possibly adding art installations to the 19th-century confessionals from street artists like Ernest Pignon-Ernest and modern artists including Louise Bourgeois. 

While Msgr. Patrick Chauvet, Notre-Dame’s rector, told the New York Times that these proposed changes would allow for an “easier and more pleasant visit” to the cathedral, opponents say the plans would undermine the religious landmark.

About 100 public figures signed an opinion piece titled “Notre-Dame in Paris: What the Fire Spared, the Diocese Wants to Destroy” in the conservative French newspaper Le Figaro in December 2021. Early pushback in the British press compared the renovations to turning Notre-Dame into a “woke Disneyland” when the plans were first announced in November 2021.

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This is not the first time critics have pushed back against modernizing the 850-year-old cathedral. Though French President Emmanuel Macron initially pushed for a contemporary glass spire, a rooftop garden, and other modern touches to be added to the top of the cathedral, 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.

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.

As of April 2021, 1,000 oak trees were cut from roughly 200 French forests to make the frame for the cathedral’s transept and spire. 

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 quarrymen, 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.

How long will it take to rebuild Notre-Dame?

In the days following the fire, Macron set a five-year restoration deadline, in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics. According to experts familiar with medieval restoration work, it could take about 15 to 20 years to rebuild the roof, spire, and parts of stone vaulting that fell through to the main sanctuary.

However, officials said they aim for Notre-Dame to be open for a “return to worship” by Macron’s 2024 deadline before the full restoration is complete. 

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“The objective . . . is to return Notre-Dame to worshippers and to visits in 2024. That means that in 2024, Mass will be able to be organized in the cathedral,” Jeremie Patrier-Leitus, a spokesperson for the restoration, told the Associated Press in April 2021. As of September 2021, the AP reported that this deadline is still realistic according to the government agency overseeing the reconstruction.

To get an idea of the work that needs to be done on Notre-Dame, take a look at these scenes from the cathedral before and immediately after the 2019 fire, as well as a few reconstruction updates from 2021.

Before the fire (September 2018)

This photo, dated September 7, 2018, shows Notre-Dame’s roof and spire before they burned.

After the fire (April 2019)

The cathedral lost its roof and spire in the April 2019 fire.

Reconstruction progress (November 2021)

By fall 2021, temporary structures built to secure the cathedral’s iconic towers, vaults, and walls were complete so reconstruction work could begin.

Before the fire (October 2017)

Inside Notre-Dame in October 2017

After the fire (April 2019)

The interior of Notre-Dame immediately after the fire in April 2019

Reconstruction progess (June 2021)

Inside Notre-Dame cathedral on June 16, 2021

How much will it cost to restore Notre-Dame?

The consolidation phase—between 2019 and 2021—cost 165 million euros (US$197 million). That money went toward the stabilization of the vaults inside the cathedral, as well as removing the scaffolding in place at the time of the fire.

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.

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, April 15, 2021, and again on December 22, 2021, to include current information.

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