John David, the master stonemason at York Minster, remembers the night of 9 July 1984 well. At about 2am, a lightning bolt hit the cathedral’s south transept and started a fire that raged through the building, collapsing the roof and causing millions of pounds’ worth of damage. “I remember some people coming to the building
John David, the master stonemason at York Minster, remembers the night of 9 July 1984 well. At about 2am, a lightning bolt hit the cathedral’s south transept and started a fire that raged through the building, collapsing the roof and causing millions of pounds’ worth of damage.
“I remember some people coming to the building in tears,” he said. “I didn’t have that emotion. I was just thinking ‘let’s get it all cleared out and get it rebuilt’. There was no doubt in my mind that we could repair it, sympathetically, and in the same spirit that it was built.”
On Monday night, David watched in horror as the 850-year-old Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned. But he remains optimistic that the building can be brought back to its former glory. “The roof’s completely gone and there is damage to the vaulting, which does concern me, but the rest of it is repairable,” he said. “There are people who can do it.”
According to Prof Stefan Holzer, from the building archaeology and construction history group at the ETH Zürich university, the first priority needs to be the installation of a temporary roof to prevent further damage from “atmospheric influences” such as rain.
He said scaffolding should be erected inside the building to check that the structure was secure. It is possible that water used to extinguish the fire has caused damage to plaster, masonry and furnishings, while the high temperatures during the fire may have made the stone work less solid.
Of particular worry at Notre Dame were the rose windows, three immense round stained-glass windows that date back to the 13th century. On Tuesday afternoon, they were reported as saved.
Sarah Brown, the director of York Glaziers Trust, which preserves and restores the stained glass at York Minster, said she had emailed her French counterparts to offer help and support.
“Stained glass, of course, is made in heat,” she said. “The glass is manufactured in heat and the painted decoration is fused to the glass’s surface in a kiln so it can be surprisingly robust and resistant to fire.”
In the case of the York Minster fire, the solder that holds the pieces of glass together melted, leaving the structure unsafe. The glass also suffered from thermal shock, in part because cold water had been sprayed on it by firefighters, said Brown. “This causes rapid cooling, so the combination of fire and the cooling effect of the water causes lots of little micro-cracks to form on the glass.”
On 20 November 1992, a fire broke out in Windsor Castle – one of the official residences of the Queen. The blaze began in the Queen’s private chapel at 11.15am when a curtain was set alight by a spotlight pressed against it.
It caused extensive damage to about an eighth of the castle, including the collapse of a number of ceilings. The restoration project cost £36.5m and was finally finished in 1997.
Francis Maude, the director at Donald Insall Associates which managed the Windsor Castle restoration, said the speed of the Notre Dame project would depend not on the availability of materials, but on the availability of skilled craftspeople.
He said it was too soon to estimate the cost, but pointed to plans for the restoration of the Palace of Westminster, which is estimated to be at least £3.5bn. Notre Dame was smaller, he said, but more thoroughly damaged.
He said his work on the Windsor project had provoked a debate about the use of fire resistant materials in any reconstruction – some parts were rebuilt using wooden beams and others using steel. “I think there’s a discussion to be had about whether the roof should be rebuilt to entirely replicate the original,” he said.
“There may be other voices out there who say that they can recreate the form of the roof using materials that people use today – in other words a steel structure that can’t catch light. Though with an effective fire suppression system, you can build in oak and have a thatched roof, like the Globe theatre in London.”
David said he hoped that Notre Dame would be restored in the “traditional manner with traditional materials” and that “there was nothing wrong with the materials that the building has been built with”.
“You can add fire precaution measures and things like this, but the expertise is there,” he said. “Buildings represent so much. They represent a history of a certain period of civilisation. And York Minster, like Notre Dame in Paris, represents the city.”