Lauren Collins writes in The New Yorker about being on the roof of the cathedral just weeks ago.
Seeing the spire of Notre-Dame split like a pencil, you wanted, honestly, to be sick. “La flèche s’est effondrée” (“The spire has collapsed”) was how they said it—on TV, on the radio, on Twitter—in French. “La flèche” also means “arrow.” That seemed fitting: Notre-Dame’s peak was a standby of Paris wayfinding, but it also pointed to the sky, to the realm of creators and destroyers who, on a whim, could seize a city on a Monday night. To Victor Hugo, the Paris skyline was “more jagged than a shark’s jaw, upon the copper-colored sky of evening.” Now there was a smoking void. The falling arrow seemed to be pointing to some kind of reckoning, to some bigger thing than the construction accident that early reports suggested might have been at fault for the fire. The omniscient of the Internet told us not to fret, that cathedrals had been built and burned before. But Parisians watched with the supplicant helplessness of the ages, singing hymns on their knees as the firefighters battled to save the north belfry on the second day of Holy Week.
The diocese of Paris had recently begun a hundred-and-fifty-million-euro restoration, which was to have been carried out over the next ten years. The façade of the cathedral was cleaned up in 2000, but the rest of its exterior was in dire shape. Flying buttresses were giving way; erosion had blunted the pinnacles into melting candles. In some places, the limestone was so friable that you brushed a finger against it and it ran like sand through an hourglass. In others, missing elements had been replaced by plywood and PVC pipe. The spire’s lead covering was cracked, and water had damaged the wooden structure that underlaid it.
Late on Monday night, I called Olivier Baumgartner, a master technician at a company called SOCRA, which specializes in the restoration of historic monuments. Baumgartner and a colleague, Alexandre Decaillot, had spent a week working at the cathedral, removing copper statues for restoration offsite. “I’m completely nauseated,” Baumgartner told me. He added, of the effort to restore the cathedral, “In wanting to give her a second youth, we have perhaps destroyed her.”
I met Baumgartner on the roof of the cathedral in late March, when I went to see how the renovation was coming along. He and Decaillot had been at Notre-Dame for almost a week, dismantling the copper statues of the twelve disciples that the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc installed around the cathedral’s spire sometime after 1843. The men were wearing hard hats and cobalt-blue jumpsuits. Scaffolding rose around them. Decaillot was carrying the apostle Andrew’s head, which he had just separated from its base with a blowtorch. The head was heavy, so Decaillot held it upside down and face in, with its nose poking into his belly. Then he turned the head around and stuck a hand into its hollow neck, like a puppeteer. Saint Andrew had a mournful look. Streaks of verdigris ran from his eyes to his beard, giving the impression that he’d been crying for a hundred and sixty years.
Decaillot and Baumgartner had been deployed to Versailles (fixing the marble in the Hall of Mirrors) and Mont Saint-Michel (re-gilding the archangel Gabriel and putting him back on top of the church with the aid of a helicopter). Even so, they were discreetly thrilled to be spending their workdays in the gargoylesphere. From where they were standing, you could see the Eiffel Tower, Les Invalides, the mysteriously lopsided towers of Saint-Sulpice.
“Fabuleux,” Baumgartner said.
“C’est la chance,” Decaillot replied.
Decaillot and Baumgartner finished work on the statues on Thursday. They were looking forward to going back to Notre-Dame in a few weeks, to take down the rooster that perched on top of the spire. Tonight I realized that we may have been some of the last people to stand there. I remember seeing a pigeon that had made its nest in the flat of a gargoyle’s neck. I got up close to a clock that, I was amazed to learn, was wound every Thursday morning. The job site seemed clean and well organized—there was a shower cabin where, before descending, each worker was required to wash off toxic lead, untold quantities of which were released tonight into the atmosphere—but I was amazed at how fragile everything was, and how intimate its upkeep. The cathedral was the work of people, not machines.
Baumgartner has also been working on the renovation of the Samaritaine department store, just across the river from Notre-Dame. There, he said, private firemen patrol the job site as a preventive measure. But that would have been impossible at Notre-Dame, due to its architecture. “There’s no such thing as zero risk,” Baumgartner said.
As of late Monday evening, the western façade of the cathedral—the twin bell towers, the Portal of Judgment—appeared to have been saved. “The worst has been avoided,” the French President, Emmanuel Macron, said on the scene. For Parisians, Macron said, Notre-Dame was “the epicenter of our lives.” He vowed to rebuild and said that a national fund to do so would be launched on Tuesday.
That morning on the roof, Decaillot and Baumgartner wrapped Saint Andrew’s head in bubble wrap, sealing it with orange tape. They put it in a wooden crate where his brethren—along with four smaller sculptures depicting symbols of the Evangelists—were waiting.
The saints’ bodies were joined with their heads last week, at the artisans’ workshop in Périgueux. They are the city’s sentries, its wayposts, the bombers of a billion photos, the inhabitants of an arrondissement in the sky. They, at least, are safe.
Photo from Sipa/AP.