Among the most moving images of Notre Dame Cathedral burning above the evening streets of Paris on Monday was one of a crowd at the Pont de la Tournelle sadly singing hymns as the blazing church spire fell. At that moment one could believe that an 800-year-old monument to French culture and masterpiece of Gothic architecture beloved around the world was doomed to destruction.
Astonishingly, the heroic efforts of more than 400 firefighters were able to extinguish the blaze before it leveled the immense stone structure, saving the twin towers from which, in Victor Hugo’s novel “ The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Quasimodo hurls the evil priest Frollo to his deserved death.
That 1831 novel inspired the first major French effort to preserve Notre Dame after more than 40 years of neglect and vandalism, led by the great Victorian-era architect Violet le Duc. Now the fire and the challenge of restoring the iconic building have inspired another astonishing outpouring of generosity, this time from around the world. Just two of the many pledges of help came from individuals who between them promised over $300 million toward the task.
It will be an immensely difficult and architecturally challenging undertaking to restore Notre Dame, but French President Emmanuel Macron has promised to be fully engaged. Perhaps the unity that the fire brought to the French nation may also help heal divisions that at times recently have erupted into civil strife due to protests by the Gilets Jaunes, or Yellow Vest movement against fuel taxes.
An early inventory of the destruction has found that not only priceless relics but also great artistic achievements such as the Rose Windows have survived the blaze. The reconstruction, it now appears, will not start from zero.
“All things fall, and are built again,” as the poet William Butler Yeats once wrote. Charleston, with its cultural ties to France and a deep reverence for history, knows this in its bones, having survived wars, storms, fires and earthquakes.
We empathize with the challenge facing the City of Light. But we also know that the cathedral will rise once again.