How long to rebuild Notre Dame? Experts have only a hunch

As donations flood in from around the world, France’s restorers disagree on whether work will take years or decades; Russia, Italy, Germany offer to send help

Inspectors are seen on the roof of the landmark Notre Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 16, 2019, the day after a fire ripped through its main roof. (Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP)
Inspectors are seen on the roof of the landmark Notre Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 16, 2019, the day after a fire ripped through its main roof. (Photo by Lionel BONAVENTURE / AFP)

AFP — Rebuilding the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris could take decades after it was gutted by a fire, experts warned Monday, even as its most senior cleric expressed hope he could celebrate mass there within years.

Parisians and people around the world watched in horror on Monday evening as a huge fire ripped through the 850-year-old gothic cathedral, causing its spire and part of the vaulted roof to collapse and triggering a scramble to save its precious relics and artworks.

Declaring that the “worst has been avoided,” President Emmanuel Macron immediately vowed: “We will rebuild Notre Dame together.”

And pledges of immense donations together already worth hundreds of millions of euros within hours flooded in from the business world in France.

‘Not in my lifetime’

But asked how long the restoration could take, Eric Fischer, head of the foundation in charge of restoring the 1,000-year-old Strasbourg cathedral, which recently underwent a three-year facelift, said: “I’d say decades.”

The Notre Dame Cathedral seen at sunrise as firefighters operate after the fire in Paris, Tuesday, April 16, 2019. (AP Photo/Kamil Zihnioglu)

“The damage will be significant. But we are lucky in France to still have a network of excellent heritage restoration companies, whether small-time artisans or bigger groups,” he told AFP

Fischer said the ability to rebuild the colossal cathedral in a manner that respects its original form and character would depend on the plans, diagrams and other materials available to the architects.

They would need “a maximum of historical data or more recent data gathered with modern technology such as 3D scans” of the kind used in the restoration of the Strasbourg cathedral, he said.

Stephane Bern, a TV presenter famous for his programs on medieval France who was recently appointed the government’s representative on heritage, estimated the rebuilding would take “10 to 20 years minimum.”

Noting the restoration of Reims cathedral, which was bombarded by German forces during World War I took decades, an emotional Bern, 55, told French radio: “You know what hurts me the most? It’s the idea that I will not see it again in my lifetime.”

“It will be rebuilt for future generations,” he said.

‘Decade a joke’

But Jack Lang, who served as a hugely prominent culture minister under the presidency of Francois Mitterrand, called for a much quicker turnaround.

“Since yesterday I’ve been hearing that it will take a decade. That’s a joke,” an indignant Lang told AFP outside the cathedral on Tuesday.

Pointing to the renovations in Strasbourg, he said: “We have to do the same thing here, not in 10-15 years but three years.”

Firefighters use hoses as Notre Dame Cathedral burns in Paris, Monday, April 15, 2019. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

The rector of Notre Dame, Monsignor Patrick Chauvet, also attempted to strike a hopeful note.

“I hope I will see that cathedral again in my lifetime and that I will celebrate a mass there. I’m 67 now and if all goes well, even if it takes 10 years, I will be 77 and still able to do it,” he told France Inter radio.

As pledges of donations flooded in from around the world, the city of Paris and private individuals, Italy, Russia and Germany offered to send expert help.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia offered to send “the best Russian specialists with rich experience in the restoration of national heritage monuments” while Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini promised “all the help we can give.”

Oak shortage

In a sign of the scale of the challenge, France’s top producer of oak said it was worried about the stock of oak available to rebuild the gutted wooden interior of the nave’s roof.

Sylvain Charlois of the Charlois group estimated that 1,300 oak trees had been used in the construction of the roof.

“To constitute a big enough stock of oak logs of that quality will take several years,” said Charlois, who has pledged to donate wood.

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