Notre-Dame Cathedral
Credit: Henry Marion/flickr

It’s tragic that a fire has ravaged the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris, burning through its roof and collapsing its spire. The cause is as yet unknown, and it will be a while before we get a full damage assessment. The structure contains countless treasures in addition to being an architectural and aesthetic marvel in its own right.

The cornerstone of the building was laid in 1163, more than 850 years ago, and the construction took more than two centuries and required multiple architects. The pace of technical change back then was obviously much slower than we’re accustomed to today, but it was substantial enough for there to be notable innovations along the way, (like flying buttresses) that could have never been envisioned when the original blueprints were drawn up.

I think this is a moment to consider the dedication and persistence that was required to carry out a major urban project across the administration of four kings, two of whom reined for over forty years. Our longest-serving leader, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, served for twelve years. Try to imagine us celebrating the completion of a building that had been started in 1800 and you’ll begin to get an idea of the scope of the thing.

It takes a sustained period of relative cultural and societal stability and security to achieve something like that, and then there is the additional six hundred years after completion that the French have managed to sustain and periodically update the structure. In the 16th century, it was attacked by rioting Huguenots. Despite vandalism and repurposing for the Cult of Reason, the cathedral survived the French Revolution. It made it through two world wars.

Napoleon Bonaparte was both married and coronated there, and the place is rich with history. Reportedly, over 13 million people visit each year, and they carry those memories with them.

The cathedral will be repaired and rebuilt, and hopefully the damage to irreplaceable works of art will be limited, but this has already been a giant tragedy for all of humankind. It’s not only a monument to God, but a testimony to what people are capable of accomplishing if they put their minds to it. Maybe the one redeeming aspect of this fire can be that it reminds us all of that.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at