Notre-Dame Cathedral renovations play catch-up as lockdown eases, square reopens

The square in front of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris was reopened Sunday for the first time since the fire that destroyed its roof on April 15, 2019.
The square in front of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris was reopened Sunday for the first time since the fire that destroyed its roof on April 15, 2019. © Alain Jocard, AFP

French renovation teams aim complete work on Notre-Dame Cathedral in time for the fifth anniversary of its 2019 fire despite the Covid-19 lockdown, the project leader said on Sunday, as admirers were allowed back into the adjoining square.

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Casual passersby and faithful alike flocked to the Parvis de Notre-Dame as the square reopened with the partial lifting of lockdown restrictions.

The coronavirus pandemic "has unquestionably delayed the work", said Jean-Louis Georgelin, the army general put in charge of the mammoth rebuilding programme.

But the goal remains to reopen for religious services in April 2024, Georgelin said, standing in front of the closed-off cathedral grounds. "There's no reason to believe it cannot be met – we'll have to find a way to catch up."

Paris officials on Sunday removed the tall metal barriers surrounding the square, offering visitors a close-up look at the gothic monument for the first time since the devastating fire more than 14 months ago.

"It's almost a form of rebirth today," Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, wearing a face mask, said in a short address to journalists while visiting the site with the cathedral's rector Patrick Chauvet.

"Notre-Dame is the soul of Paris... It's a site that doesn't fail to impress you," she said.

The square began to fill up under sunny afternoon skies as word of the unexpected reopening spread.

"Notre-Dame is our symbol, more than the Eiffel Tower," said Stephanie Cadillon, a librarian. "We wanted to see how it had changed."

The monumental facade and arched entrances remain blocked, however, behind beige security barriers as workers prepare to resume restoration work as France's coronavirus lockdown is lifted.

The plaza was closed off shortly after the blaze on April 15, 2019, that nearly destroyed the 12th-century church, which millions of people watched live on TV worldwide.

The fire completely consumed the oak beams and more than 300 tons of lead panelling in the roof, spewing toxic lead particles into the air as they melted.

Heavy concentrations of the metal settled on the square and nearby streets that proved particularly difficult to remove, sparking fears that residents could be exposed to poisoning.

Several schools were closed for weeks as workers decontaminated classrooms and playgrounds, and restoration work was halted after authorities demanded face masks and other protective gear for workers.

But the regional ARS health authority gave its approval Friday for reopening the site, which will be cleaned regularly as the renovation work slowly resumes.

Despite the delays, President Emmanuel Macron reiterated last month his goal of restoring Notre-Dame to its former glory by 2024.

The fire that engulfed the 850-year-old building destroyed its spire and much of the roof. While the final renovation cost remains uncertain, an appeal for funds has raised close to €1 billion.

Workers must still remove a tangled web of metal scaffolding that fused in the blaze, which erupted while the cathedral was undergoing restoration work on the roof.

The metal tubes must be cleared so that a more durable temporary roof can be installed to protect the cathedral's priceless artworks from rain, and actual restoration work might not begin until next year.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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