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Remarkable restoration of Paris' Cathedral of Notre Dame nears completion 4 years after fire

Notre Dame restoration efforts continue
Reconstruction continues at the Cathedral of Notre Dame 4 years after fire | 60 Minutes 13:37

The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris is a treasure. First built in the 13th century, it came to be known and celebrated around the world as a prime example of medieval architecture and engineering. In France, it is sometimes called "the people's palace," because it has been the site of not just worship, but also national consolation and reconciliation for centuries. 

As retired French army General Jean-Louis Georgelin put it to 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker: "The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris is, in some way, the heart of France. For the Catholic, of course, for the Christian, but for everybody. … All the great events of France, in some way or another, took place here in the cathedral."

When Notre Dame caught fire on April 15, 2019, it was a tragedy and a trauma shared by people all over the world. Because images of the fire were broadcast live to televisions and smartphones everywhere, it was one of those 21st century moments that the world experienced in real time.

"Everybody stopped," Georgelin said, describing what went on in his home country. "And a lot of people in France cried because they feel that something very deep in the soul of France and the spirit of France was about to collapse." 

The cathedral's iconic 200-foot-tall wooden spire did collapse; that may be the moment people remember most from that night. Journalist and author Agnes Poirier, who lives just across the River Seine from Notre Dame, recalls standing with her neighbors and watching it fall. 

"I remember the scream of the crowd saying, 'No!' as if they couldn't conceive such a thing," Poirier said.

Only a heroic effort by the Paris fire brigade prevented the rest of Notre Dame from collapsing. By the time firefighters arrived, the cathedral's wooden roof and spire were beyond saving, so they focused on fighting fires burning inside the stone towers that are crucial to Notre Dame's structural integrity. 

"There were like 15 or 20 minutes to save Notre Dame," Poirier said. "And they did it."

The full extent of damage became clear on the morning after the fire: the roof and spire were completely gone, there were two huge holes where the collapsing spire crashed through the stone vaults of Notre Dame's ceiling, and the cathedral's floor was covered with deep piles of burned wood and broken stone.

French President Emmanuel Macron pledged just after the fire that Notre Dame would be repaired and reopened within five years. He appointed Georgelin to oversee the huge restoration project. 

The other crucial figure in the project is Philippe Villeneuve, who has been the chief architect in charge of the cathedral for a decade. He is so dedicated to Notre Dame that he has its famous spire tattooed on his arm. 

"They say that I have Notre Dame in my skin," he said in French. "It's very practical, because when I have to explain how the spire fell, it's always better to show that from here to there it tipped over, and from there to there it fell."

Villeneuve was supervising a restoration project focused on the spire at the time the fire broke out in April 2019. 

Whitaker asked him a pointed question: "Did your restoration project have anything to do with the fire breaking out?" 

"An investigation is still underway," Villeneuve responded in French. "No cause of the fire has been identified. But personally, it's unbearable. This fire never should have happened, and it did. inevitably, I feel responsible," he said before switching to English. "In reality, I'm totally destroyed. I so want to rebuild Notre Dame, it's because I want to rebuild myself."

Just before the four-year anniversary of the fire, Villeneuve and Georgelin gave Whitaker and his 60 Minutes colleagues rare access to every aspect of the huge restoration and reconstruction project at Notre Dame. 

Nearly $1 billion in private donations have been pledged to rebuild Notre Dame, most of it from France. Around $50 million has come from Americans.

That money will be used to reconstruct the cathedral as it was, though architects around the world floated a number of redesign ideas. In the end, President Macron and a special committee agreed to rebuild Notre Dame exactly as it had been, and with the same materials: stone, wood  and lead.

"An historic monument, a cathedral, is not something to be played with," Villeneuve said in French. "Notre Dame has been standing for 850 years with a wooden frame and a lead roof, so wood is the way to go."

Whitaker asked Georgelin how many workers and craftsmen are on the project.

"If you take into account all the people in France who are working every day for the reconstruction of the cathedral, it's about 1,000 people," Georgelin said.

That includes lumberjacks who have cut down 2,000 French oak trees for Notre Dame's new roof and spire, and carpenters who are carefully cutting those trees into beams and supports. It also includes stone cutters and sculptors who are painstakingly recreating stone supports and ornaments damaged in the fire. Inside the cathedral, workers are carefully cleaning every one of the ornate stained glass windows, every statue, and every inch of soot-covered stone. 

Sculptor Danae Leblond, 23, chiseled to recreate a floral detail carved hundreds of years ago. 

"We try to remake things identically," she said in French. "But we are also trying to understand the intention of the original sculptors, so we look at the traces left by their tools."

Construction crews have built a 600-ton scaffolding inside Notre Dame to support the rebuilding of its broken stone vaults and a new spire. Georgelin took 60 Minutes to the top of that scaffolding, 100 feet above the cathedral's floor.

"The drama took place here," Georgelin told Whitaker as he stood in the spot where the old spire collapsed. "And we have to rebuild the vault of the transept. The [new] spire will be there, 66 meters high." 

That's 216 feet, and workers are just beginning to assemble the huge wooden beams that will support the new spire. When the structure is ready, 16 copper statues that were part of the old spire will be lifted back into place. Miraculously, they had been removed from their places atop the cathedral just four days before the 2019 fire as part of Villeneuve's original restoration project. The sculptures represent the 12 original apostles of Jesus and four early Christian evangelists. 

There was another copper sculpture that was still at the very top of the spire on the day the fire broke out. It depicted a rooster, which is the symbol of the French people. Anyone who saw the collapse of the spire must have assumed that the rooster had been consumed by the ferocious flames. But the next day, Villeneuve spotted it lying on a lower roof and retrieved it. 

It was a bit mangled from the fall, but somehow untouched by the fire. It has been left in the condition in which it was found, and will be put on display inside the cathedral when it reopens at the end of 2024. 

"Can I tell you," Villeneuve said in French, "that I plan to put a new rooster on top of a new spire one year to the day before the reopening of the cathedral. There will still be scaffolding, but the frame of the spire will again be in the sky of Paris."  

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