The shocking fire at Paris’ beloved Cathedral of Notre Dame reminds us that even a massive limestone building can burn down.
According to General Jean-Claude Gallet, the Paris fire chief, the fire started in the cathedral’s attic. A space seldom seen by visitors, the attic is hidden above the soaring stone arches visible from the floor, crisscrossed by giant timber trusses that add structural integrity to the cathedral. Once a bone-dry network of timbers catches fire, the blaze is almost impossible to extinguish.
The tragedy points to the special vulnerability of old church buildings. In Paris, the fire at Notre Dame destroyed the spire and most of the roof within an hour. Fortunately, the two massive bell towers were spared, at least one of the stained glass windows survived, and much of the cathedral’s art was carried outside by firefighters. But the fire is heartbreaking for Parisians and the millions of tourists who have admired the soaring Gothic cathedral.
In Gloucester, Massachusetts, the 19th–century Trinity Congregational Church was to be repainted in 1979. In order to keep lead-paint dust from blowing around the church’s closely built neighborhood, the painters chose to melt off the old paint with blowtorches instead of scraping it off. The building caught fire and burned to the ground within minutes. Three years ago, a historic Serbian Orthodox church in Manhattan was destroyed by a four-alarm fire that required 168 firefighters to put it out.
“The whole roof is a wooden truss,” one of the New York firefighters told the New York Times in 2016. “It’s gone.”
When you combine ancient webs of timber and a large volume of open space, you have the ideal situation for a raging inferno. Between 2007 and 2011, about 31 American congregations burned weekly, according to an estimate by the National Fire Protection Association.
“These cathedrals and houses of worship are built to burn. If they weren’t houses of worship, they’d be condemned,” Vincent Dunn, a fire consultant and former New York City fire chief, told the Times.
Retrofitting historic buildings to meet today’s fire safety codes without damaging their historic fabric is notoriously difficult. “Fire Safety Retrofitting in Historic Buildings,” published by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the General Services Administration in 1989, does offer guidelines.
“Fire safety improvements support historic preservation objectives, as such improvements ultimately will protect the property from extensive damage in a fire incident,” the report states. “In most cases these improvements can be accomplished without significantly altering the historic features of the property.” Like most documents of its kind, it offers general information, but no cost estimates.
The installation of passive fire suppression materials, sprinkler systems and smoke detectors might not have saved Notre Dame, Trinity Congregational or Manhattan’s Serbian Orthodox Church, but they might have mitigated the damage.
Many small congregations do not have the funds required for such measures. Notre Dame, however, belongs to the French government, as do all churches, temples and synagogues in that country built before 1905. Hopefully, some of the $680 million French billionaires have pledged to the rebuilding initiative will cover a variety of fire safety improvements.