Letters: ‘My Heart Broke When I Found Out Notre-Dame Was Burning’

Readers lament the damage sustained by the cathedral—and discuss its rebuilding.

Philippe Wojazer / Reuters

The Fire at Notre-Dame

On Monday, Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, France, caught fire. Parts of the structure—which had survived plague and wars of religion, the French Revolution, and the Nazis—were severely damaged, including the iconic spire and wooden roof.

The history of sacred structures across the globe can be defined by ruin and repair, Sophie Gilbert wrote; Rachel Donadio argued that the devastation in Paris this week laid bare all the paradoxes of France. And Alexis C. Madrigal reported on a source of hope: The late Andrew Tallon, a pioneering architectural historian, scanned every piece of the cathedral, inside and out, and created 3-D images that may be able to help with reconstruction.

I don’t have French blood, nor have I ever been to France, but my heart broke when I found out Notre-Dame was burning.

When I was a little girl, I was fascinated by Paris; it has been a lifelong dream to go there. I grew up in a family of Ethiopian immigrants and learned Chinese from high school onwards, but the idea of going to Paris persisted.

Hearing about the burning makes me contemplate a lot of things—I dream about making something that would last forever, but I wonder not only if it would be remembered, but also if it would be preserved.

Elda Mengisto
Lynwood, Wash.

To hear that Notre-Dame was burning had a deeply profound effect on me. To watch from abroad the destruction of this Parisian treasure and cultural giant saddened me to a point of despondency. Your article about Andrew Tallon’s legacy in capturing this grand Dame has shored up my faith. Vive la Notre-Dame!

Winter Shanck
Brooklyn, N.Y.

While earning my B.A. in painting and sculpture I was often asked, “What are you going to do with an art degree?,” as if I were setting my young self up for a deprived future. I am retired now, but in the last years of my second career I was using laser scans as the basis for designing revisions to refineries and petrochemical plants. Until then, we had to make detailed drawings of existing facilities since the original plans were no longer accurate. If someone asked me today, “What on Earth can anyone do with an art degree?,” I would give the example of Andrew Tallon. I’d say, “With his creativity, insight, and smarts he posthumously served mankind to a degree the world could not have foreseen nor imagined.”

Robert Dean Hubbard
Dunedin, Fla.

Notre-Dame has been wrecked before—by the Revolution as a symbol of the hated ancien régime—and rebuilt before, by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc as a testimony to the eternal, Catholic heart of the French nation, the same French nation that exiled Captain Alfred Dreyfus and, in more recent times, has marginalized its Muslim citizens. Today, with a new sort of struggle raging for the meaning of what it is to be French, how Notre-Dame is rebuilt cannot help but carry political meaning. Will the rebuilding use aped medieval materials to conjure an imagined past, or will it be rebuilt in the same spirit, but employing a diversity of modern materials, to bespeak the reality of contemporary France?

Ken Mondschein
Easthampton, Mass.

It is not the structure itself that gives the Notre-Dame its gravitas and importance (although that is, of course, fundamental), but rather it is the human history that it has borne witness to throughout the centuries. By this measure, Notre-Dame was not only not lost—it can also be restored to its full grandeur. It was heartening to see Emmanuel Macron say so decisively that repairs will be made, and encouraging to see some funding already promised. Notre-Dame’s long and storied history is far from over and will continue long after anyone who witnessed the devastation this week is gone. Such potholes on the road of history are part of the very essence and story of Notre-Dame and other landmarks like it.

Dan White
Long Beach, Calif.