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Iconic Landmarks
January 2020

Notre Dame de Paris: A history of construction, destruction and renewal

The cathedral — considered the geographical center of France — has evolved throughout its existence.

Photo credit:

François Roux

The news of a fire at Notre Dame de Paris on the night of April 15, 2019 sent shockwaves around the world. Tourists and Parisians alike watched helplessly as an orange glow enveloped the structure and firefighters attempted to douse the flames with water from the nearby Seine river.

Kathy Borrus, author of the newly-published book, “Notre Dame de Paris: A Celebration of the Cathedral,” watched the night’s events unfold on television from Washington D.C., where she lives.

“When I first heard about the fire I was shocked and horrified,” she says.

The fire, as well as the days of mourning and reflection that it provoked, led Borrus to immediately pick up Victor Hugo’s “Notre Dame de Paris” (or “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in English), and begin to read it for the first time. It was Hugo’s novel, among other works of literature, history and art, that would end up informing her book about Notre Dame, published this October through Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers.

Borrus’s “Notre Dame de Paris” is an excellent primer on not just the building itself, but on its place in French culture and society. From the nearly 200 years of construction that took place over the 12th to the 14th centuries to the Viollet-le-Duc restoration in the mid 19th, Notre Dame has constantly evolved, while at the same time remaining one of — if not the — most recognizable monuments in Paris.

“Beyond its secular purpose, it’s a part of French history,” Borrus says. “It’s always been a part of everyday life in Paris.”

In the book, Borrus takes readers through the church’s different iterations and the various challenges it has faced over the years, not least of all the April fire. Thoroughly researched, the book also informs readers about some of the lesser known facts about Notre Dame. (Such as, for example, the fact that during the French Revolution, the church was used as a warehouse for food and wine, or the fact that the famous chimeras and gargoyles that adorn the building weren’t added until the mid-19th century.)

“It was all of the stories that fascinated me,” she says of the writing process, which took place over just a few short months.

As Notre Dame enters the third decade of the 21st century, its evolution will no doubt continue. But Borrus, for her part, is pretty sure on one thing. “They have to rebuild with new materials,” she says, referring to the debate about how to best rebuild the church. “Even the cheap architects from the 19th century would agree.”

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