The tragic fire which devastated the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is seen as a symbol of the loss of civilization as a whole by many. But the beloved church, like many historic buildings and structures throughout the world, knows the touch of wanton destruction throughout the centuries. Now that the funding for Notre Dame reaches over $1 billion dollars, there will be no problem with its famed being placed at some point in the future.
A Parisian history of catastrophes
By definition, Notre Dame is built from destruction — a Roman church was demolished to make space for it in the 12th century. From there it should be no surprise that the cathedral has seen a rather tumultuous history of “improvements” throughout time.
Most famously Notre Dame felt a massive effect during the French Revolution, where supporters of the movement vandalized and damaged the cathedral. More than 20 of its statues were decapitated during the era. Iconoclasts attempted to burn it down a century later but their plans were foiled.
The parts of the cathedral that burned down and fell were mostly wood, but most of the building itself was made of stone. While this protected it from serious damage, there are other factors that must be looked at as well. They must see what damage was made from the smoldering timber after they fell into the building, or what was saturated with the gallons of water used to put out the fire.
The scars of World War 2
This is not a new event in humanity’s long history of its tragic destruction of timeless buildings. The reason why people forget this is because many of them have had their doors reopened after a complete restoration. Some of these buildings and areas have been through far devastating levels of damage and are back to their former glory.
Germany felt immense effects of devastation that are now rebuilt. The city of Cologne was demolished by around 1500 metric tons of Allied bombs in 1944, damaging more than 5,000 buildings. The famed Cologne Cathedral took 14 hits from aerial bombs but did not collapse (repairs were completed more than a decade later).
Dresden is well-known for the widespread annihilation from three days of sustained bombings. One building that was destroyed was the Frauenkirche Dresden, a Protestant church with more than two centuries of architectural history. It lay in ruin for decades until citizens of the city voted to restore it in 1994. A decade later the church was once again open for churchgoers.
The Reviving of Cities
Warsaw is an example of how a city can reach complete annihilation and be recovered. The Nazis wiped out around 90 percent of the buildings in the Polish city, including its Old Town neighborhood. It took 18th-century paintings and architecture student’s drawings to meticulously piece Warsaw back to its previous image.
The 1906 earthquake of San Francisco leveled the city, taking down most of its buildings through the initial quake and subsequent fires. There was not enough water to stop the fires because of the structural damage caused by the fire, and dynamite used to clear out ruin buildings only created more flames. The people made a serious effort into recovery, however, and by the World’s Fair nine years later the new San Francisco was used as a centerpiece of the event.
Britain's Layer of Rubble
The Royal Exchange in London is home to high-end luxury stores now, but it has seen many flames in the past. Since opening in 1571 it has been destroyed twice — once in the Great Fire of 1666 and later in 1838. Queen Victoria ordered the construction of the Roman-meets-Renaissance architecture of the Royal Exchange seen today.
The largest inhabited castle in the world (and de facto home to Queen Elizabeth II) had a fire break out in 1992. The size of the Windsor Castle is considerably larger than Notre Dame, so the damage was larger — more than 100 rooms were affected.
The Windsor Castle fire was seen as an opportunity by some. Many parts of the castle had centuries-old interiors that were heavily degraded and needed restoration. The destruction from the fire allowed restorers to put work on the best work available.
Other London monuments have had success after the flames. After a particular medieval cathedral was wiped out from the Great Fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren used it as an opportunity to give London a new church for modern times. What came of this is St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of the most visible sights of the city today.
Reconstruction In Every Direction
You can almost throw a stone at a medieval cathedral in any direction and see the scorch marks from some bygone era. The Canterbury Cathedral has seen Danish raids and fires after the Norman Conquest before its reconstruction into the English Gothic style we see it today. The Zagreb Cathedral in Kaptol was originally destroyed by the Mongols in the 13th century, then later heavily damaged by an earthquake more than 600 years later before it was restored to the style it is in today.
A different type of demolition occurred in the Soviet Union in 1934, when Stalin ordered the tearing down of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral via dynamite. He had it replaced with a giant open-air pool, which was closed after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Construction of a replica of the cathedral started in 1995, and its doors were open in 2000.
Bastions of music have also felt the hand of devastation. Barcelona is home to a world-famous opera house, the Gran Teatre del Liceu, which was in need of repairs since the mid-19th century. A 1994 fire that tore it apart led to the Spanish people came together and rebuilt it exactly as it was, with modern equipment included.
For Americans who still remember their social studies classes, the War of 1812 had one very important casualty — the White House. Two years into the war the British invaded 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, looting it and setting it on fire. James Madison, then President at the time was forced to abandon the presidential residence and never returned. The White House you see today is a very different reconstruction than what existed before the war.
Those That Never Come Back
And what about the monuments of a civilization that are demolished and are never rebuilt? Some create new versions of themselves nearby the original site like Coventry Cathedral after it was destroyed during The Blitz. Others only leave remnants and make something different, like the tower of the bombed-out Christ Church Greyfriars which is now a public garden.
A recent tragedy occurred in Syria when the structure of Palmyra was destroyed by ISIS insurgents in 2015. A World UNESCO site that had stood for 5,000 years, the extremists destroyed historic buildings such as the Arch of Triumph. The remains of rubble still lie there to this day.
The National Museum of Brazil, the oldest and most important in the country, was burned down in September 2018. The serious tragedy of it was the loss of over 20 million artifacts, many of which are invaluable and cannot be recovered. To make things worse, unlike the donations Notre Dame is currently receiving the National Museum has only reached a little over $275,000.
Then, of course, are the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. After their total collapse after the 9/11 attacks, it took years to design and build the Freedom Tower which now replaces them. Where they stood now lie a memorial visited by thousands.
What Is Next On The Burn List?
The Palace of Westminster, the building that is home to the British Parliament, is due for renovations in the next decade. It has already been rebuilt after a fire in 1834 but is already in need of repairs from almost 200 years of wear and tear. It was shut down for a day this year after a leak came in through the roof of the House of Commons.
That’s not to mention the numerous bridges, estates, ports, and fortresses throughout the world that are in dangerous levels of disrepair. The creeping disintegration of these is the cause of lack of interest, the neglect of owners, or the outright disregard for the structure’s history. The stories of a thousand-years-old city mean very little to the plans of a hydroelectric dam project that will flood it.
No matter what state a cathedral, museum, or national monument rests in what should stay constant is their memories. Whether it happens through restoration or replication, it must be carefully studied so that the eventual reopening brings back the correct representation of human culture.