Rebuilding History

September 20, 2019
On July 5, the sun shines through the damaged roof of Notre-Dame, in Paris, France.
PATRICK ZACHMANN—MAGNUM PHOTOS FOR TIME

April 15, 2019, started out like any other day in Paris, France. But by the day’s end, everything had changed. Notre-Dame cathedral, a French landmark, was swallowed by fire. Onlookers gasped as they witnessed a piece of the country’s history going up in flames.

Maddie Shenkan, 15, was living next to the cathedral at the time. As smoke crept into her family’s apartment, she started seeing news articles and tweets about the disaster online. “It was so surreal,” Maddie told TIME for Kids. “Already, the whole world was watching.”

SHOCKING SIGHT People in Paris, France, gather together to view the April 15 fire at Notre-Dame cathedral.

NICOLAS LIPONNE—NURPHOTO/GETTY IMAGES

What History Deserves

Construction of Notre-Dame began on an island in the Seine River about 850 years ago. The iconic Roman Catholic church took nearly 200 years to build. Today, with its towering arches and gargoyles, it’s one of the world’s finest examples of Gothic architecture.

To the people of France, Notre-Dame is much more than just a place of worship. It’s a symbol of the country. It’s also a popular tourist destination, drawing some 13 million visitors a year. “It is our history,” said French president Emmanuel Macron in a speech on the night of the fire. “We will rebuild Notre-Dame together,” he pledged, “because that is what our history deserves.”

WORK IN PROGRESS Two workers hang off the side of Notre-Dame on July 2.

PATRICK ZACHMANN—MAGNUM PHOTOS FOR TIME

Macron called for a modern restoration of the cathedral by 2024. Designers from around the world imagined a roof made entirely of new materials, such as crystal or recycled ocean plastic. But there was debate over how to rebuild Notre-Dame. Many wanted the cathedral to look exactly as it had before the blaze. The French Senate agreed. On May 27, it voted to restore the cathedral to its “last known visual state” before the fire.

A New Chapter

The fire may be out, but efforts to restore Notre-Dame are only beginning. Already, there have been setbacks. Summer heat waves caused the ceiling to become too dry, and several stones fell. The blaze also released toxic lead particles into the air. This delayed the cleanup process. Concerns over lead poisoning remain.

RUBBLE TROUBLE Protective nets are hung below Notre-Dame’s ceiling to catch falling debris in the aftermath of the April 15 fire. Before reconstruction can begin, the remaining rubble must be removed.

PATRICK ZACHMANN—MAGNUM PHOTOS FOR TIME

The major worry is preserving the building’s fragile framework. “The structure has been weakened by the fire,” says Michel Picaud, head of the charity Friends of Notre-Dame de Paris. “We have to secure the building before we can rebuild.” This means cleaning, protecting, and repairing the many parts of the cathedral that were damaged.

SKY HIGH A worker scales an open part of the roof, where the blaze at Notre-Dame began. Some sections of the cathedral have since been exposed to rainfall and high temperatures.

PATRICK ZACHMANN—MAGNUM PHOTOS FOR TIME

According to Picaud, the actual rebuilding of Notre-Dame likely won’t begin until spring 2020. Skilled workers from around the globe will come together to make it happen. Limestone will need to be carved to rebuild Notre-Dame’s walls. Thousands of oak trees will need to be harvested to reconstruct the scorched roof.

This isn’t the first time Notre-Dame has needed major repair, and it probably won’t be the last. The cathedral has been reshaped many times. Notre-Dame has survived fires before. It was also damaged during the French Revolution. It has evolved over the centuries.

SAFEKEEPING A wooden frame protects a 14th-century statue in a side chapel of Notre-Dame on June 25. After the fire, the statue was moved out of the central part of the building for safekeeping.

PATRICK ZACHMANN—MAGNUM PHOTOS FOR TIME

Hundreds of years from now, what will people think when they look back on the 2019 fire at Notre-Dame? “I would like people to remember,” says Picaud, “that Notre-Dame de Paris began a new chapter in its story."

The Damage Done

LON TWEETEN FOR TIME

Five hundred firefighters put out the blaze at Notre-Dame about nine hours after it began. By then, the cathedral’s 300-foot spire had collapsed into the flames. Nearly two-thirds of the roof was destroyed, too. Thankfully, firefighters managed to save many important artifacts, including a crown of thorns believed to have been worn by Jesus. Notre-Dame’s famous stained-glass windows and pipe organ also survived.

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