Notre Dame Cathedral … a disaster waiting to happen …

  In 1992 I wrote about a scructural error in Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, and that the building was not all that secure. My piece was published on Thursday, May 7, 1992, in the Johannsburg-based ‘The Star’ daily. At that time restoration work to the cathedral was being undertaken and in charge was French architect […]

Notre Dame Cathedral on Thursday Dec 28 2017 (cc Marilyn Z. Tomlins)

 

In 1992 I wrote about a scructural error in Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral, and that the building was not all that secure.

My piece was published on Thursday, May 7, 1992, in the Johannsburg-based ‘The Star’ daily.

At that time restoration work to the cathedral was being undertaken and in charge was French architect Bernard Fonquernie. There was thus much talk about the fragility of the 800+ year-old cathedral.

But said Monsieur Fonquernie one should not think that the cathedral will collapse ‘tomorrow morning’.

As the 27-year-old cutting from  1992 is not easy to read, and as my article is indeed interesting, I have retyped it and is posting it here:

A CROOKED VIEW OF NOTRE DAME

BY Marilyn Tomlins

Paris – Some years ago, a South African construction expert, Mike McDermott from Pretoria, told astonished tourists inside the Notre Dame cathedral that the 800-year-old building was “crooked”.

He stood right at the back and just inside the old, beautifully carved wooden double doors used by the 10 million tourists annually to visit this most sacred of Paris monuments, and pointed towards a beam on the domed ceiling. “You can see it there,” he explained.  “See this beam is out of line with that beam.”

Mike McDermott knows buildings as he is a veteran southern African construction manager, but the tourists did not know this, and their faces revealed their 5houghts.   The man was a cut case. Quickly the moved away.

Today, it is official.

Mike McDermott was right.

Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral is askew.

Broken

This was discovered when a team of restorers and architects began planning a major restoration of the centuries-old cathedral built by nine generations of masons and carpenters.

The team found that the cathedral’s many gables, pinnacles, flying buttresses, balustrades, statues and gargoyles were cracked and broken, with pieces missing.

In fact, all the external part of the cathedral is “fragile and sick” as one of the restorers described it.  The victim, no doubt, of 800 years of rain, hail, frost, snow, fog, smog, wind and sun.  And then also of human disregard – smoke, car fumes, and a revolution or two.

The work, estimated to take 10 years at a cost of R120 million, is the first major restoration since 1841 when King Louis-Philippe 1 ordered Viollet-le-duc , one of France’s most prestigious architects and restorers, to try to repair the damage done during the 1789 Revolution when the cathedral was repeatedly pillages.   Since then, it has had a steam washdown 15 years ago.

French architect Bernard Fonquernie, who is in charge of the present restoration, has been studying cathedral data and documents for the past three years.

He has inspected almost every centimetre of the cathedral himself.   Optimistically, he says that one should not think that the Notre Dame will collapse tomorrow morning.

Its structure is solid with walls of between 2 and 3 m thick. But the cathedral is indeed askew, with its horizontal and vertical lines out of alignment.   Its walls, too, he says, are not straight.

Mr Fonquernie’s restoration plan does not want to correct this. He days his restoration work will above all respect this constructional imperfection, as in his opinion, it is this that gives our very old buildings their character and charm.

“Many pairs of hands built the Notre Dame, and each pair was different.  The designers were masters, but the execution was primitive.  We cannot use stones or lines that are perfect, it would be harsh and create too much of a contrast,” he explains.

For this reason the stonemasons who are working on the cathedral will treat each stone and statue, etc, as if it is an individual item, not part of a huge building.

Each section needing repair will be matched in a workshop against slabs of limestone so that there is a perfect colour and texture match.    One problem was to find a suitable limestone as the quarries from which the original stones were taken have been built over and are now part of the foundations of the city of Paris.

Another problem was finding stonemasons who specialise in restoring, cutting and carving stones; in our time a vanishing profession.

Mr Fonquernie needed 30 but found only 15.

It is now their task not only to repair the fragile and sick stones, but also to undo damage done by Viollet-le-Duc.

He simply poured cement and even sometimes lead into cracks.   These will have to be removed and replaced with a substance more porous than cement to allow water to pass through the stone.

This is unfortunate, says Mr Fonquernie. As “It will be repairs and stones made in 1992”. The cathedral was begun in 1163 and finished 182 years later in 1345.

What the restorers will be unable to remove are the iron railings around the cathedral’s two towers, once home to Victor Hugo’s hunchback Quasimodo.

There were put up 10 years ago to prevent people from committing suicide by jumping from them.

Suicide

It was Mr Fonquernie who was in fact the one who put up the barriers at the request of the Paris authorities.  Whatever the cathedral’s “father founder”, Bishop Maurice de Sully, had in mind in the 13th century when he ordered the Notre Dame to be built, it was not to provide the world with a perfect jumping-board for suicide.

The case that persuaded the authorities to close off the towers was when a young woman teacher jumped from the south tower one sunny summer afternoon and fell on to twin sisters on holiday in Paris from Canada.    One twin was killed.

There have been more than 60 recorded cases of people jumping to their death from the Notre Dame, including two since the railings were erected.  The cathedral is second to the Eiffel Tower for suicides.

Which brings us back to Mike McDermott.

“If you have to visit the Eiffel Tower, do not linger too long underneath it.   One day soon, if will topple over,” he advised.

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Marilyn Z. Tomlins

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