Old age, pollution and the elements have caught up with Notre Dame, the noble Gothic cathedral often called “the parish of French history.”
“The monument’s general condition is worrisome, and if we don’t do something now, we’ll end up with a very sick building,” said Bernard Fonquernie, chief architect in the Culture Ministry’s historical monuments division.
The ministry has allocated about $19 million for an ambitious 10-year face lift scheduled to begin this summer.
Notre Dame was begun in 1163 under King Louis VII and not finished until nearly 200 years later.
It is considered a supreme masterpiece of French art. Critics describe it as “solid, but not heavy,” with an architectural perfection all its own.
Not solid enough, however, according to Fonquernie. He said rain, wind, sun, frost and dust have eaten away the porous gray stone over the centuries.
Restoration will begin with removal of all loose stones and installation of more nets to catch any that fall.
Chunks of loose stone regularly fall from the facade and interior walls, some into nets and others near visitors. Fonquernie said no one had been hurt so far.
“Last year, freezing temperatures caused a lot of damage,” he said. “In the spring, many fragments broke loose.”
Notre Dame’s most dangerous enemy is pollution from the hundreds of taxis and tourist buses that visit the cathedral each day on the Ile de la Cite in the middle of the Seine.
Fonquernie said many buses park for hours with motors running--and exhaust spewing--solely to maintain heat in winter and air conditioning in summer.
City authorities banned parking around the cathedral in 1989, but the rule is widely ignored and few vehicles are towed away.
Eleven million visitors a year also have taken their toll. Sweaty hands soil the walls and footsteps wear the floors.
“I have seen the stained glass windows, vaults and pillars dripping with condensation caused by the heat of human bodies,” the architect said.
One journalist wrote that, in summer, the majestic cathedral looks more like the lobby of a railroad station than a church. A visitor once rode a bicycle around the nave.
This will be the first major restoration project since 1843, when architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc tried to undo damage wrought during the French Revolution, when the church was used as a food warehouse.
Unfortunately, the cement and mortar he used in the 23-year project have decayed even more quickly than the original stones.
Viollet-le-Duc added ogival vaulting and interior walls, unearthed traces of the Gothic choir, rebuilt a spire and adorned the three main doors with statues inspired by the cathedrals of Reims and Amiens.
Fonquernie predicts that his own restorations will have to be restored in the next century.
“For me, this is a real problem,” he said. “How authentic will Notre Dame be when its stones have been replaced?”
As if to respond, Jean Perrin has written in Le Monde: “Those who built Notre Dame did not expect it would last forever. Protecting monuments is a modern idea. But who can complain?”