A Preservationist’s Thoughts on Seeing Notre Dame in Flames
By Anne Stillman
As preservationists, we talk about why it is important to save historic buildings, and there are many good reasons. They are tangible reminders of our past. They document the ideals and aesthetics of an earlier time. They tell stories of lives lived before our own. They can provide memorable learning experiences for students. They add character and a sense of place to a community.
They often contain irreplaceable materials, such as timbers harvested from old-growth trees, sometimes from species that are effectively extinct. They frequently display a high-level of craftsmanship. Preserving them contributes to sustainability by not wasting and discarding the materials and labor embodied in their construction. Rehabilitating historic downtown buildings can spur economic development. And they can be emblems of our collective history.
But the horror and inner pain the world felt while watching flames and smoke ravage the familiar silhouette of Notre Dame tells of something more profound. In Paris, crowds of onlookers held their breath, wept, quietly sang hymns. They were touched to the core. Grief enveloped them. The loss unfolding before their eyes struck deep into the heart.
It was hardly better for those of us watching broadcast images. I felt sick in the pit of my stomach and tears welled up.
We can all be grateful that there was no loss of life. But loss there was — of something supremely beautiful, enduring, and meaningful to humankind.
For a time, the fear of total collapse felt paralyzing and incomprehensible. How could the cathedral, which had lasted more than eight centuries, withstood ransacking in the violence of the French Revolution, and survived Nazi occupation during World War II, be on the brink of complete destruction?
Somehow the firefighters, including 20 who reportedly risked their lives to fight the blaze from inside the towers, plus the ancient stones of the vaulted ceiling, held back the worst. The great building remains “battered but standing,” as a New York Times caption stated.
I love the building. I love the balanced, symmetrical façade, unusual in a Gothic cathedral. I love the flying buttresses that wrap around as the River Seine parts and embraces the island on either side. I love the interior where the exquisite rose windows glow with ethereal stained-glass colors and the ribbed vaults soar. I am clearly not alone.
As Thompson Mayes thoughtfully wrote in his book, “Why Old Places Matter: How Historic Places Affect Our Identity and Well-Being”, “From memory and identity, to architecture and history, to beauty and sacredness, to economics and sustainability, old places matter for reasons so numerous, all encompassing, and essential … that their place in our lives is difficult to fully recognize.”
Until we almost lose them.
<The author, a historic preservation advocate, is the president and CEO of the Bird Homestead and Meeting House Conservancy. She is a former chair of the City of Rye Landmarks Advisory Committee.>