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To rebuild Notre Dame after its fire, French can look east to Dresden’s Frauenkirche

To rebuild Notre Dame after its fire, French can look east to Dresden’s Frauenkirche
The rebuilt Frauenkirche in Dresden, Germany. (Erik Kirschbaum / For The Times)

As the embers cool and donations mount to rebuild the fire-racked Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, lessons gleaned from the improbable reconstruction of Dresden’s Frauenkirche decades after the city was firebombed near the end of World War II could both inform and inspire the effort.

The remains of the iconic baroque 18th-century Lutheran church lay desolate and covered by weeds for more than 40 years of Communist rule, a sort of ghoulish antiwar monument that even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, some 90% of locals thought should remain a memory.

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But buoyed by a worldwide spirit of revival, including an influx of $150 million in donations, the rebuilt church stands again, in an entire neighborhood of reconstructed buildings visited by many of the 2.7 million tourists who flock to the city of 550,000, 120 miles south of Berlin, each year.

The Frauenkirche (or Church of Our Lady) is one of several monumental structures painstakingly restored across Europe, most having been disfigured by acts of warfare. Among them: Warsaw’s Old Town that was destroyed by the Nazis in 1944; the Gothic cathedral in the French city of Reims ravaged by fire when it was bombed by Germans in World War I; and Bosnia’s 19th-century National Library, rebuilt after its destruction in 1992.

Sebastian Feydt has been the managing director of Frauenkirche, the most important landmark in Dresden’s skyline, since 2007 and acknowledged that many in Dresden were at first opposed to rebuilding the church, in part because of the lingering effect of the former East German government’s anti-church sentiments.

“That’s all changed now,” he said. “They’ve seen that restoring this house of God was more than just replacing a building. It is a symbol for peace and reconciliation. It’s a symbol of the power of renewal.”

But if Frauenkirche serves as a template, the rebuilding of Notre Dame won’t necessarily be a stroll through the park.

“I think the hardest part in Paris is going to be finding enough artisans with the right skills to be able to do the job at Notre Dame,” said Martin Curbach, director of the Institute of Concrete Structures at the TU Dresden University, who also was on the building committee for the Frauenkirche reconstruction, which had a total price tag of $200 million, including government funding. “Finding oak won’t be as difficult as finding the craftsmen.”

Curbach said that determining how badly the fire damaged Notre Dame’s stonework will also be a key factor in the length and cost of the project: “You can’t always tell the condition inside of a stone by looking at the surface,” he said. “It’s going to take at least a year or two to analyze all the stones. I fear it’s going to take more than a decade to complete the work.”

Professor Stephan Albrecht, a monument expert and art historian at the University of Bamberg in Germany, cautions that replacing Notre Dame’s spire and sections of its roof, among other things, could be more complicated than it might seem at first glance.

“The situation in Dresden might on the surface seem similar to Paris, but in reality it is completely different,” Albrecht said. “The Frauenkirche was entirely destroyed, and there was in essence nothing left of it. It’s a completely new structure and that was in general easier. In Paris, it will take years to determine whether the walls were damaged by the fire. With a bit of luck, it will turn out that they’re in good shape. But it will take time to figure that all out.”

Modern construction standards could also provide a hurdle in the reconstruction of the iconic 850-year-old Gothic structure, for which more than a billion dollars has already been pledged or donated.

In Dresden, the absence of original construction plans from 1726 complicated the effort, according to Martin Hertenstein, an engineer who worked on the project. Architects and planners were forced to resort to pictures and interviews with senior citizens who described in detail the inside of the church a half century earlier in order to create computer simulations and draft blueprints.

“It was an interesting assignment working without blueprints and what also made it challenging was trying to incorporate as many of the original stones and elements as possible into the new building,” Hertenstein said.

About 45% of the stones in the new building were retrieved from the original church and put into their original locations.

“It wasn’t always possible to find a way to comply with current building codes and practices in rebuilding an 18th-century church,” he recalled. “Sometimes we had to include modern ingredients to the mixture.”

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And so it went.

The Frauenkirche was resurrected in 2005, after 11 years of reconstruction and six decades after more than 1,200 British and American warplanes dropped incendiary bombs on Dresden, creating a massive firestorm that killed an estimated 35,000 civilians and turned much of its center into a pile of smoldering rubble.

By using a special crane, workers raise the cupola and gilded cross on Dresden's Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, in June 2004.
By using a special crane, workers raise the cupola and gilded cross on Dresden's Frauenkirche, or Church of Our Lady, in June 2004. (UWE MEINHOLD / AFP/Getty Images)

Among the witnesses was then-prisoner of war Kurt Vonnegut, who turned his memories into the iconic 1969 novel (and later film) “Slaughterhouse-Five,” itself now etched in the memories of countless American tourists who visit the rebuilt cathedral and its environs.

On most days, relatively few locals can be seen in the neighborhood and Martin Welle, 41, a pedicab driver who delivers groups of foreign tourists to the church, says there’s a good reason.

“Everything was destroyed here, and there’s almost nothing original left,” he declared, pointing to the church and surrounding Neumarkt square. “It’s like a sort of Disneyland here. None of these buildings around here are authentic. They’re all modern cement buildings with fake historic facades. What’s gone is gone.”

Helmut Buchholz, 69, who has lived near the Frauenkirche for most of his life, agrees.

“The Frauenkirche is for the tourists,” said the retired transport administration official. “I’m here on the square next to the church all the time but never go in there. The lines are way too long, and it’s nothing for me.”

Yet some, including Welle, do remain of mixed mind.

“It was a highly controversial issue right after reunification,” he said. “People wanted to see money spent on new roads and housing rather than rebuilding an old church. I didn’t really care either way. But [now] I’m glad they rebuilt it. It’s an essential piece of Dresden.”

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Kirschbaum is a special correspondent.

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