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Authorities look for answers after a massive fire devastated the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
USA TODAY

Repairing and rebuilding the Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the most famous buildings in the world, will take a “lot of time,” experts say. 

Architecture experts say the repairs could take decades and require a delicate balance of restoring its unique look with fortifying the structure for the future.

“This is going to be a slow process and one that’s going to take a lot of time,” said John J. Casbarian, dean emeritus at Rice University’s School of Architecture, where he oversees a the school’s program in Paris.

Most of the work in rebuilding the cathedral will be on reconstructing the roof, Casbarian said, and he expects it to take at least 10 to 20 years.

Luckily, the church has an extremely accurate documentation system for everything inside, he says. “It’s just a matter of figuring how to manufacture and replace every piece that was destroyed.”

Over the years, historians and archaeologists have made exhaustive plans and images, including minutely detailed, 3-D laser-scanned re-creations of the interior.

Casbarian expects it to take so long because of not only the large area that was destroyed, which will require a lot of scaffolding, but also the level of craft work it will require to reconstruct each piece lost.

“A lot of construction is covered up so that you don’t actually see it. In buildings like this you see everything,” he said.

Jean-François Bédard, a professor at Syracuse University’s School of Architecture, said that many French Gothic cathedrals, like Notre Dame, were originally built thin, slender and fragile, which has meant that restoration has been ongoing throughout their history.

“It’s not like this monument is fixed in time and suddenly destroyed. It’s an ongoing process,” he said. Bédard also expects the rebuild to take at least 20 years

After the French Revolution left the cathedral in a state of disrepair in the 19th century, restorers Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Jean-Baptiste Lassus comprehensively rehabilitated the structure, Bédard said.

It was Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” that largely sparked interest in the renovations at the time, Casbarian said.

Viollet-le-Duc did much of the work restoring the building’s roof, and he also designed the spire that collapsed Monday.

That restoration work dramatically changed the character of the cathedral, Bédard and Casbarian say, and much of the cathedral remained in its 1800s condition.

French officials haven’t said whether they will rebuild the roof with wood, as it had been since Viollet-le-Duc’s work, or a more fireproof material like stone.

Both architects say some sort of modification with fire prevention in mind would be needed to prevent another blaze. However, the building’s stone structure with flying buttresses allowed the main structure to remain intact Monday.

“Because the flying buttresses are outside, they didn’t have any heat to cause expansion, and so the structure, I presume, is pretty sound,” Casbarian said.

“Of course it will never be the same but the foundations I presume are as solid as ever,” he added.

Despite fears at the height of the inferno that the whole cathedral would be lost, the structure appears intact. 

As for why the church is still standing, Erik Inglis, an art historian from Oberlin College, said that “credit goes to two factors. First, the firefighters, who put a stop to the fire on the roof and attic.

“Second, the stone vaults of the church which, in combination with the walls and flying buttresses, proved stable. They are built in a sort of cellular system, in which each unit helps to support its neighbors while being supported by them,” he said.

“It is also possible that the church may have benefited from a built-in redundancy, as the techniques of Gothic architecture were still being developed, and the architects may not have pushed the building to its limits,” Inglis said.

Tom Nickson, a senior lecturer in medieval art and architecture at London’s Courtauld Institute, said the stone vault “acted as a kind of fire door between the highly flammable roof and the highly flammable interior” – just as the cathedral’s medieval builders intended.

The chief architect of Cologne Cathedral says it could take decades to repair the world famous house of worship, the Associated Press reported. 

Fundraising for a rebuild

A massive fundraising campaign was underway Tuesday to rebuild Notre Dame. At least $675 million has already been pledged. French billionaire Francois Henri Pinault committed $113 million, as did the French energy company Total, and L’Oréal and the Bettencourt-Schueller Foundation, which is backed by the family that founded the cosmetics giant

Billionaire Bernard Arnault and his LVMH group also pledged $226 million.

“The Arnault family and the LVMH group would like to show their solidarity at this time of national tragedy, and are joining up to help rebuild this extraordinary cathedral, which is a symbol of France, of its heritage and of French unity,” their statement said Tuesday.

French President Emmanuel Macron promised late Monday to rebuild the monumental 12th-century cathedral, while religious leaders across the world shared stories of the resilience of places of worship.

Macron Tuesday said he wants to see Notre Dame rebuilt within five years. 

France owns Notre Dame Cathedral, which as been at the center of a years-long conflict between the nation and the Paris archdiocese over who should finance badly needed restoration work to collapsed balustrades, crumbling gargoyles and cracked facades, Reuters reported.

It was too early to estimate the cost of the damage, according to the heritage charity Fondation du Patrimoine, but it is likely to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

What was saved in the blaze

All was not lost at Notre Dame. The religious statues that sat atop the cathedral were recently removed as part of a $6.8 million renovation of the towering spire that fell to the ground in Monday’s blaze. Some of the sacred artifacts housed at the cathedral are safe, too. 

Notre Dame’s heritage director Laurent Prades told The Associated Press that the only piece of architecture inside the building damaged is the high altar, which was installed in 1989.

“All the 18th-century steles, the pietas, frescoes, chapels and the big organ are fine,” he said. The cathedral’s famous three large stained-glass rose windows were damaged by the heat but not destroyed, Prades told the news agency.

French authorities also said treasured relics like the Crown of Thorns, which many believe was worn by Jesus Christ, were safe from the flames.

Bédard stressed that saving the religious relics – the reason why many cathedrals are built in the first place – was essential.

“You can always rebuild but you can never replace the relics,” he said. “The cathedral cannot be divorced from the religious aspect.”

Copper statues usually set atop the cathedral also were removed just last week. Workers sent the 3-meter-tall statues representing the 12 apostles and four evangelists to southwestern France as part of the planned restoration project.

“But no matter the destruction, the spirit of what it means to be a cathedral can and does survive such catastrophes,” Becky Clark, The Church of England’s director of cathedrals and church buildings, said in a statement.

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Among English churches that have risen from the ashes are the spire at Lincoln, which collapsed in the 1500s; St. Paul’s, which burned in the Great Fire of London; and the Coventry, which was bombed in World War II.

“All have been rebuilt, sometimes taking on new forms, to stand as reminders of eternity and resurrection which are the foundation of the Christian faith,” Clark said. 

The American Institute of Architects, in a statement Monday, said that “the fire that ravaged Notre-Dame de Paris may have severely damaged an iconic building, but it could never diminish its impact or importance as a symbol of human achievement.” 

Contributing: The Associated Press

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