In April 2013, Benjamin Mouton, accompanied by Michèle le Menestrel Ullrich, left for the United States for an RMHP Série de Prestige of four conferences presented on the occasion of the Jubilee of the 850th anniversary of Notre Dame Cathedral. The first conference, held at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., was presided by French Ambassador François Delattre. The event’s great success could not be denied as Benjamin gave his conference before a standing-room only auditorium at the Penn School of Design (University of Pennsylvania). As Bonita Mueller, RMHP Fellow, wrote, ”I have always been one of Benjamin’s biggest fans … the Richard Morris Hunt Prize lecture series was a resounding success.” For the third conference, the trip continued to Columbia University in New York thanks to the generous invitation of Professor Jorge Otero Pailos. Newport was the site of the last conference by Benjamin Mouton, welcomed by the Preservation Society in memory of our great Richard Morris Hunt.
Benjamin carried high the banner of French heritage preservation while also waving the colors of the RMHP. Today, for us, Benjamin Mouton revisits his close personal relationship with Notre Dame. Please follow this link:
Wednesday, 17 April, 11:30 p.m.
I am taking off for a long trip to Shanghai; for 12 or 13 hours, I will be cut off from the world and the media and return to my intimacy with Notre Dame, my cathedral martyrized for the last two days and whose wounds are still raw. Even though I was last in charge 5 years ago, our intimate complicity remains alive.
It was Monday, 15 April, the day after Palm Sunday. The afternoon was coming to an end, morose like all Mondays. At Notre Dame, it was time for evening prayer. Suddenly, an alarm sounds at 6:18. Just as planned, the cathedral was evacuated; a second alarm, at 6:45, confirms the first one: there was a fire in the roof!
Six hundred firemen were on the scene by 7 p.m. … and the fight begins. Flames at the base of the spire at 7:11; at 7:37, the roof of the choir caves in; at 8 p.m., the spire follows suit, breaks in two and disappears; the roof of the nave is to follow. At 9 p.m., smoke pours from the louvers of the north bell tower: the belfry with its eight bells is threatened, but rapidly saved. The fire is confined and brought under control a few hours later. At dawn, the firehoses are still at work in the south aisle.
In the early-morning light, none of the damage is apparent: no charred walls, no signs of aggression: the edifice seems intact, as if asleep. The giant scaffolding at the junction of the transept, mounted for the restoration of the spire, is profiled against the sky, and this surprising silhouette suddenly reveals that something is missing: the roof, the spire!
On the interior, it is desolation. The 850-year-old roof frame, a one-of-a-kind masterpiece, has disappeared. It fell suddenly from the vaults, generating a physical impact, then a sever overload; the smoldering wooden members charred the upper stones, precisely at the spot where the pressure holding up the vaults rests; the first thermal shock is followed by a second from the water of the firehoses, which then saturate the wood and soak the vaults, adding to their weight. They collapsed into the nave and north arm of the transept; the vault of the intersection, known for its fragility and reconstructed several times, collapsed in turn. Mutilated, overburdened, the remaining vaults will remain in a fragile equilibrium until the last piece of wood is removed… The roof frame is strewn all over the floor, and the frame of the spire smashed the stalls in the nave. Lead is all over the place, in the soot, the dust, on the floor, in the organ…
Consternation. Silence… Through the wide-open vaults, the light of a day with no sunshine brutally showers into the cathedral.
As soon as the morning comes, a race against the clock begins: bracing the two gables of the transept which the fire had profoundly damaged; covering with tarps to avoid the effects of rain. At the intersection of the transept, the scaffolding unhinged by the fire and the crash of the spire hangs suspended, miraculously, over the void. It is necessary to take out the stained-glass windows, brace the flying buttresses, then the vaults as well, as soon as they are liberated from overlying materials. One hundred fifty workers are on task under the leadership of Philippe Villeneuve, Architecte en chef des monuments historiques(ACMH), who called on three of his ACMH colleagues for assistance: Charlotte Hubert, Pascal Prunet, and Rémi Fromont.
Outside, while the embers are still hot, the media conflagration has begun, with all its twists and turns, its interrogations on every subject: the state of the cathedral, the risks, the search for the causes of the fire and, above all, the search for the guilty parties – as today’s mentalities call for… announcements by the President, the Prime Minister, the schedule for a restoration in five years, the competition for a new spire into which impatient architects already leap. Bombarded with phone calls and harassed all the way to Shanghai, I call for a bit of humility and respect.
In China, news comes to me from France, with commentaries and conjectures of the most fantastic variety, in the middle of which a few voices attempt to impose calm…
But mostly, submerging me like an immense wave, the worldwide emotion born out of this drama, and which suddenly gives me a sense of this cathedral’s magnitude: she is no longer the historic monument of France, she is the mythical cathedral which the whole world has made its icon, every continent, every civilization, every religion combined, and they all send us their heartrending messages of shared grief.
But they also remind us of our responsibility and obligations beyond all proportion. From across the borders, I listen to the homage paid to my country where, nearly two centuries ago, the conservation of historic monuments was born, its practices, philosophy, and methods serving as inspiration; I listen to the homage paid to Viollet-le-Duc, so much more admired and respected, and for whom the cathedral is his masterpiece; I listen to testaments of confidence before the immensity of the challenge of healing and resurrection with which we are tasked.
I listen as well, sober and discreet, the questions which emerge little by little: “What will you do now? A reconstruction? A new construction? Or something else? But what?”
“Why are you holding an international competition when you already have qualified architects? Why don’t you rebuild Viollet-le-Duc’s spire?”
“Do you think a deadline of five years is possible? Will the qualified contractors be able to keep up, or is this to be a job for the big multinational corporations?”
How does one respond?
When I returned, a month had passed. The fever has come down outside, and the interior of the cathedral is a beehive of activity, with miracles of efficiency taking place day after day. The vaults are still at risk, but not for much longer. One begins to understand the scope of the work and define its nature.
It will be a matter of restoring: consolidating, reconstructing the vaults in their original disposition, in the perfect accord of equilibrium with the flying buttresses the 12th-century builders learned how to achieve; restoring the calcinated gable walls of the transept according to time-honored methods…
It will be a matter of restitution: a heavy roof, because this is necessary for the stability of the vaults and the buttresses; a roof frame in wood rather than concrete, for reasons of tradition and the skills of tradesmen; roofing in lead, traditional for cathedrals because it is the most noble and durable… and the heaviest.
And of reconstruction: a spire…
Little by little, emotions are calming and, recognizing at once of the elegance of Viollet-le-Duc’s work and the exemplary unity of gothic architecture thus revealed, they seem to be settling on a restoration to the complete state as it existed before the fire.
But it is necessary to start very soon.
So, a Te Deum can be sung in five years… and it will be an ode to wisdom, to moderation, and to the cathedral eternal.
Benjamin Mouton, Former ACMH of Notre Dame, 23 June 2019