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Heart of Louisiana: Notre Dame

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) – Architects putting together plans to renovate New Orleans’ historic St. Louis Cathedral are learning some lessons from the fire-damaged Notre Dame in Paris. Local architects got a rare glimpse of the French landmark.

A full restoration was unexpected for the vast Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. As a result of a catastrophic fire in New Orleans almost four years ago, St. Louis Cathedral itself is in need of renovation. Problems here result from moisture and leaks, rotting plaster occasionally falling from termites that have chewed through roof joists, and a sinking foundation. Efforts to restore the New Orleans landmark are being spearheaded by Saint and pelican owner Gayle Benson, who saw an opportunity in the ongoing restoration in Paris. She brought it up in a recent meeting with the French ambassador.

“I told him I wanted access and that we were working on a project in New Orleans and I wanted to get our architects and designers to work with the French and he said okay,” said Gayle Benson.

Within a few weeks, two architects leading the St. Louis Cathedral project toured Notre Dame, their guide being the French chief architect. In Paris, everything is being restored to how it was before the fire. Artisans carve stone to make exact copies of fire-damaged ornaments, and plaster sculptures are repaired and repainted.

“So this is in one of the chapels that they restored and cleaned,” said an interpreter.

Some of the artwork dates back to the 19th century, like St. Louis Cathedral, but other pieces date back to the Middle Ages, and there have been a few surprises with unexpected burials and other artefacts buried beneath the floor.

“They also found many sculptures,” said the interpreter.

“It’s wonderful. It’s fascinating,” said Benson.

The limestone walls, darkened nearly a thousand years ago, and the heat and smoke of the cataclysmic inferno have been carefully cleaned with latex. At Notre Dame. Donations from around the world came together, raising almost a billion dollars to fund this work in New Orleans. Fundraising is just beginning. The traveling architects exchanged ideas and sought common solutions.

“Our cathedral in New Orleans looks like this and the walls aren’t feathered, so they bow,” Andre Villere said. “The scale and scope of the work was dramatic. The complexity of the scaffolding supporting the roof was overwhelming. The fact that every surface of the building is touched, cleaned and repaired is amazing,” he added.

New Orleans architects Andre Villere and Kevin Morris spent a full day at Notre Dame. If you take the approach you took here, which is very time consuming, very complex and very expensive, how would you apply that approach in New Orleans?

“Our approach is not about creating or changing the design of the cathedral. Rather, it is about preserving the cathedral and restoring its former authenticity,” said Villere.

The French architects were also guided in their project by a full three-dimensional laser image of Notre Dame, completed a few years before the fire. This could help with the New Orleans project.

“We would also use such a technique if we were able to, since we don’t have exact dimensions, profiles or original drawings. We don’t have anything to document the parts of the church that are inaccessible,” Villere said.

Now, almost four years after Notre Dame’s restoration, some of the cleaning is complete and some scaffolding is being lowered to reveal the pale limestone walls of the vast nave. Those who come here hope that France’s success will spur efforts to restore St. Louis Cathedral.

“You know, it’s a monument, I don’t see it as a church. It happens to have crowds inside, but it’s really a very historic building and it’s over 200 years old and we just can’t lose that,” Benson said.

That historic preservation now depends on the success of the fundraiser that is now bringing Notre Dame in Paris back to life.

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