Notre Dame Cathedral restorers can take inspiration from renovation of Windsor Castle following 1992 fire
The fire at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris this past Monday, April 15, resulted in the collapse of its iconic spire and roof, as well as considerable damage to its interior, upper walls, and windows, and numerous works of art.
The stone vaulted ceiling underneath the roof did prevent most of the fire from spreading to the interior of the cathedral, but sections had collapsed, allowing flaming debris to fall through. Inspectors also later found weak points in the surviving structure — both of the towers and one-third of the roof that remained standing — and had to evacuate an adjacent row of apartment houses on the Rue du Cloître as a precaution. Luckily, it appears as though most of the artwork and relics had been safely removed, though reports indicated that the smoke did cause minimal damage.
France president Emmanuel Macron immediately promised to restore the cathedral to its former glory and launched a fundraising campaign for the same, and it suffices to say that the response has been quite incredible. The campaign has already brought in pledges of $905 million — including $226 million from France's richest man Bernard Arnault and $113 million from Francois-Henri Pinault —though it's expected that restoration work will take at least 20 years.
Nevertheless, those tasked with the gargantuan project can take inspiration from how Windsor Castle, the largest inhabited castle in the world and home for the family of the kings and queens of the UK for almost 1,000 years, was restored following a devastating fire in 1992 which gutted more than 100 rooms.
The fire broke out on Friday, 20 November 1992, which happened to be the day when Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh had their 45th wedding anniversary. While she was at Buckingham Palace, eagerly awaiting a weekend at her favorite home, Prince Philip was thousands of miles away in Argentina for the World Wide Fund for Nature. Celebrations were due after he returned that Sunday, though those plans had to be shelved because of the fire.
Reports from the time indicated that the blaze started in the Queen's Private Chapel at 11:15 am when a curtain was ignited by a spotlight pressed against it. Initially, it lit up the Brunswick tower, but the fire quickly spread to adjacent rooms as well, with a major part of the State Apartments soon ablaze.
Because the castle had its own 20-member fire brigade, of whom six served full-time, the response was immediate. However, it quickly became apparent that they would need a lot more hands on deck to battle this fire.
Just an hour after it broke out, there were 35 fire engines at the scene, with 200 firefighters from seven counties battling the blaze. It would take close to 11 hours and 1.5 million gallons of water from the main water supply, a reservoir-fed hydrant, a swimming pool, a pond, and the nearby River Thames to put it out.
Another aspect that worked in the castle's favor was that agents of the Royal Household were in the chapel inspecting works of art at the time the fire broke out and had hurriedly begun removing the paintings, continuing until the intense heat eventually forced them out.
At the same time, a salvage operation involving 125 castle staff, 125 contractors, 100 military personnel, and 20 Crown Estate Staff worked to move furniture and works of art from the endangered apartments. They successfully saved 300 clocks, a collection of miniatures, thousands of valuable books and historic manuscripts, and old Master drawings from the Royal Library — which was undamaged thanks to a fire breach at the other end of St. George's Hall.
Their heroic efforts meant just two works of art were lost, a rosewood sideboard and Sir William Beechey's equestrian portrait 'George III and the Prince of Wales Reviewing Troops', though the structural damage the castle sustained would be a lot more significant.
The false ceiling in St. George's Hall and the void for coal trucks beneath the floor had allowed the fire to spread, resulting in the collapse of several ceilings, including that of St. George's Hall, and the destruction of the Crimson Drawing Room, the Green Drawing Room, and the Queen's Private Chapel. The State Dining Room in the Prince of Wales Tower and the Grand Reception Room were also devastated, with it reported that 115 rooms had been badly affected by the blaze.
A Restoration Committee chaired by the Duke of Edinburgh was formed to tackle renovation efforts, with estimates putting the cost at approximately $41 million because of how occupied royal palaces like Windsor were too valuable to insure and how items in the Royal Collection were not insured against loss.
By the time the renovation was completed in 1997, St. George’s Hall was restored to a design close to the room’s 14th-Century appearance, but with a 20th-Century reinterpretation which featured a hammer-beam roof made from traditional English oak. The new roof, designed by architect Giles Downes, is the largest green-oak structure built since the middle ages and is decorated with brightly colored shields celebrating the heraldic element of the Order of the Garter.
The state dining room gilded sideboard, 19 feet long and made out of rare rosewood and oak, had been replicated as well, and the new chapel and adjoining cloisters were realigned to form a processional route from the private apartments to St. George's Hall.
Notre Dame can certainly look to Windsor Castle for inspiration, though its seeped history peppered with plenty of examples of its resilience — it has survived attempts to destroy it in both the middle ages and the world wars — should be proof enough that it will, one day, return to its former glory.