The National Building Museum staff, like the world, looked upon in horror at the tragedy that befell Notre Dame on Monday, April 15. Our mission is to inspire curiosity about the built world, and there are few buildings—if any—that have inspired more generations of people than Notre Dame. We invited staff to share their thoughts.
“The unimaginable has happened. The near-destruction of Notre Dame Cathedral unfolded before our very eyes. This tragic incident serves to remind all of us why buildings, why places, why iconic designs matter. Around the world, the most revered, most memorable and most inspirational buildings are embodiment and reflections of mankind’s cultural heritage. That heritage was sadly diminished yesterday. Today we must cherish our memories of the old Notre Dame as we prepare to embrace a renewed cathedral in the future.”
—Chase Rynd, executive director
“People talk about the power of place/space, but there are few structures that (through design, use, history, or a certain je ne sais quoi) actually have the ability to, for lack of a better term, move the soul. Notre Dame is one of those structures, leaving visitors with a profound connection to something more. The walls, the roof, the embellishments, all help to create that connection, but the scars of this fire, though deep and jarring, are too superficial to erase or diminish the power that resonates within the walls of Notre Dame.”
—Annalee Shum, education
“I didn’t get to see it in person! I screamed internally, heart breaking, as I watched the cathedral burn. I am a museum person, seeing the real thing is so important, there is nothing like it. I walk into our own building every work day and I try to keep my wonder at the light streaming into our great hall, to touch the 75 foot columns. General Meigs had visited Europe and Rome and had seen the ruins of other great buildings. He had in mind both the creation and destruction of this building as he designed it. 15.5 million bricks strong, fireproof, built to withstand the test of time. Then there are the time capsules tucked away in many of our second floor columns, that will only be revealed upon the buildings destruction.
I’m so grateful that the brave and hardworking firefighters of Paris were able to save as much of the structure as they were. I have no doubt they will rebuild and the history of Notre Dame will continue and evolve as it always has. We will continue our work here at the National Building Museum to teach about the importance of buildings in our day-to-day lives but also in the history of humanity.”
—Kristen Sheldon, visitor services
“I think the stories that got to me most were the one about the French people in the streets singing Ave Maria and the one where somebody pointed out that some of the wooden structure that burned yesterday was hewn from old Europe’s primeval forests.
For me, this speaks to both how buildings come directly from the land (and the building pre-dates us, but the materials pre-date the building, too) in ways we don’t always remember to appreciate and how they speak to us on some unearthly, ethereal level. Of course this was a religious building but it was also a building through which we could literally see a Europe that for all practical purposes no longer exists. Buildings can almost be magic that way.
And that’s why you would be moved to sing a requiem.”
—Sarah Leavitt, curatorial
“The unthinkable tragedy which happened on Monday, April 15, 2019 with the incredible destruction at Notre Dame Cathedral affects us all in some way. It reminds us that buildings are not just structures; they each have a purpose, whether it be religious, residential, commercial or a famous cultural icon. Furthermore, it reminds us that buildings, no matter how long they have existed or how significant, are all vulnerable to the elements of nature. From this tragedy we all can learn that architecture is a part of our lives, great or small. Therefore, we must help to maintain and preserve it in whatever way we can.”
—Gregory Thompson, visitor services
“The burning of Notre Dame is devastating. I have taken the cathedral for granted, as something that would always exist, but seeing images of it burn reminds us that nothing is permanent. Whether you attend mass there every Sunday, visited on vacation, or have simply seen photographs, many people are feeling a sense of loss.
This is a reminder of how the built environment connects us all, around the world and across time. My social media was full of people posting their connections to the cathedral; pictures from study abroad, honeymoon, and travel experiences, of the rose window, view from the top, or just the building itself. Around the world people were sharing their connection to this place. Strangers have been linked through their individual memories and the shared experience of watching Notre Dame burn.
I also think of the people throughout history that have witnessed previous fires and disrepair and felt similarly disheartened. It has happened before and may happen again and I find comfort in knowing that throughout the cathedral’s 800 year history other people have also felt this way. The experience has bound us, through time and space, and together we’ll watch as the Notre Dame is rebuilt.”
—Allison Pagliaro, education
“Notre Dame de Paris will always hold a very special place in my heart. Notre Dame was the first truly Gothic cathedral I had ever visited. The most recent time we were in Paris we almost skipped visiting, under my families argument that, “oh well, it’s been here for 900 years it will be here next time.” We couldn’t have been more wrong. It was so hard to watch the footage of Notre Dame burning, knowing we almost missed an opportunity to see it in its original glory.
As an American, it is hard to comprehend the age and the splendor of Notre Dame. But for me the draw was always the windows, particularly the rose windows. Seeing the light pour through those stained panes of glass is one of the most moving things that I have experienced in my travels. It almost makes you forget about the thousands of people around you trying to enjoy the same windows. Through all of this devastation, nothing brought me more joy than finding out that the rose windows had survived. Though windows can be rebuilt, losing those 13th century windows would have been a great lose to history and the world.
I look forward to seeing Notre Dame rebuilt when I next go to Paris!”
—Emma Campbell, visitor services
“We all felt a deep pain, watching the flames take the roof of the cathedral—even those of us who have never visited Paris. That one building can represent so much to millions of people all over the world, even people who have never set foot there, or follow the religion practiced there, says so much about the power of place.”
—Emma Filar, marketing & communications
“The Notre Dame became a place of sanctum when I visited Paris in 2015, hours after the terrorist attacks. I found meaning within the Cathedrals’ great walls and felt a sense of containment for my grief as I sat in silence or conversed with it’s many volunteers. like one of the dazzling gardens in the city’s landscape, the Cathedral welcomed me to enter and ponder the past as I gazed inside it’s Gothic structure and stained glass. Gently, each visit offered me courage to dream for the future and find belonging at a time of disconnection.
Thank you for standing tall and watching over the people of Paris.”
—April Baez, visitor services