Notre Dame Isn’t the Only Cathedral That Needs Saving

Crews work to strengthen a part of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, April 23, 2019. (Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters)
The conflagration is a teachable moment about the decrepit state of many beautiful churches.

The Notre Dame fire is the biggest and saddest art story this year. I’ve waited a few days — I’ve read so much treacle amid the ash — before I wrote something. It’s tough to absorb.

Personally, I’ve always found Notre Dame a difficult thing to love. It’s heavy, squat, loaded with tourists, and laden with France’s traumatic history. If we’re looking for romance and magic, Sainte-Chapelle, across the street, is enchantment made real. It’s rarely visited, too. That said, Notre Dame is a symbol of France and a great building.

The fire launched a thousand pieces about the sour state of the French soul, which seems beside the point. To me, it’s an art-and-architecture story. Many of these great cathedrals have had bad fires. It’s hard to read anything about French malaise in this one. France is an unstable country. That’s been a given since 1789. Since then, it’s been invaded three times. By my count, it’s had at least nine different systems of governance, among them five republics, three empires, and, as late as 1944, a blend of Nazi and native Fascist rule. America, which the French consider the Wild West, is staid by comparison. I think in my lifetime I will see a Sixth Republic. Michel Houellebecq, in his highly readable novel Submission, imagines an Islamic takeover, which has a ring of possibility.

Aside from the miserable fact that the cathedral is so badly damaged, I did see that my jaw does go slack when I read something amazing. Both the New York Times and the Washington Post ran headline stories featuring complaints that the $1 billion collected to renovate the building came from rich people! And why haven’t they been spreading that lucre to ease inequality? This most loudly from French union bosses.

“How dare they not throw money at me,” they cry.

Unless I missed something, leprechauns and unicorns aren’t known for writing big checks, and people give to the causes that move them. The Post even wrote a story linking these gifts to white privilege, an intellectual thread I find as labyrinthine as anything in Greek myth, except the myths weren’t composed by dummies. In a big world of 7 billion people, I bet there’s a Divine Cult of the Holy Cauliflower somewhere, and I bet its priests are triggered as all get-out.

Back in the real world, here are some serious ideas. The French need to do something counterintuitive. They need to look to the Germans for guidance. No one has more experience in the restoration of old cathedrals. The Frauenkirche in Dresden is their latest triumph. That was destroyed in 1945. The Germans, by the way, have far more sophisticated fire-detection systems for their massive medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque piles. Among many other things, they station round-the-clock security on the roofs of these buildings.

The Italians have dealt effectively with earthquake damage, notably in the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi following a 1997 trembler in Assisi. In England, a transept ceiling in York Minster collapsed during a 1996 roof fire, damaging the finest stained glass in the nation. It’s been restored. These buildings were built to last. When you’re working for God, there’s no room for shoddy craftsmanship. Teatro La Fenice in Venice burned to rubble in 1996. Its restoration was beautifully done but unfolded with operatic complexity. John Berendt’s book is essential reading on this subject, or on anything Venetian.

I think the Notre Dame fire, once it’s investigated, will be chalked up to gross negligence. I don’t know whether this concept exists in French law. These old cathedrals, as the chief of the New York City Fire Department correctly noted, are fire traps. They’d be condemned if they weren’t places of worship and national treasures. This requires enormous, constant vigilance.

The church’s restoration will take far more than President Macron’s rosy five-year goal. Is the craftsmanship even available? The church’s rare Norman stone was hand-hewn. Can that stone still be found? The spire was a 19th-century addition. Should it return? There are a million such intricacies, and they will spawn limitless arguments.

A billion dollars has already been raised through spontaneous generosity. Much more will follow. A big fight over control of this money will surely happen. The art press needs to watch this money like a hawk. There are bureaucrats in Paris today who think they’ve won le Super Lotto.

I look at big pots of money first and foremost in terms of endowments. A billion dollars in an endowment would, if invested and drawn prudently, generate $50 million in income a year. That’s a ton of money and would, over time, support the renovation of Notre Dame and a sound conservation, maintenance, and renovation program for many other buildings. There are now 112 “cathedrals” — seats of bishops — in France. Any list can be intelligently pruned to define a set of cathedrals by age or condition that would be eligible for help.

Whenever one of Obama’s people said “let no crisis go to waste,” I used to cringe. The shark music from Jaws went through my mind. In this case, though, the crisis has led to a good opportunity.

I know the concept of an endowment is anathema to government everywhere since politicians are into consumption, not saving. Cries of “incroyable” would be audible on Mars if and when the concept of an independent, scrupulously managed conservation endowment ever landed on the docket of France’s National Assembly, but it’s the smart solution to a big art problem. It takes leadership, creativity, prudence, and self-control.

Where’s Herbert Hoover when you need him? He led the international famine- and refugee-relief effort to brilliant effect during World War I. These cathedrals are precious, and we’ve seen in Notre Dame merely an eruption, a whopper, of a slow-moving disaster.

When I was in the classroom, we would call this a “teachable moment.” As an art historian, I look at this first and foremost as an architectural preservation issue, a warning, and an opportunity. There are many hundreds of churches in America in terrible condition. I have a particular interest in stained glass and other kinds of interior church decoration. This is American art of exceptional quality. Many churches need to raise money for other needs, like new roofs or new furnaces. They actually address poverty, too, not cry about it. The National Endowment for the Arts could do something truly useful and focus on this very narrow infrastructure dilemma. It dribbles away so much money as it is.

I’d vote against replacing the spire. It’s a 19th-century addition and architecturally inappropriate. But let’s not put a giant model of a Vuitton handbag in its place.