It is now a bit past the third anniversary of the fire that heavily damaged Notre Dame cathedral in Paris, and it is safe to say that its recovery is now a question of how long it will take to be ready, and not whether it can be saved.
Now, it is Paris's most prominent construction site, and it can still draw quite a crowd, as I found when I visited a few months ago. But these days, the visitors aren't in line to enter the church, but to 'read the walls' that explain the project and its history and to look up into the structure as the work continues.
And there's plenty to look at, including a curated exhibition of children's art work, inspired by the Gothic cathedral and its fate. To see more samples of that, click HERE
At a distance down the river, you could almost imagine nothing had happened: No grimy smoke stains, the crane could belong to another project... but then you remember: the tall, slender steeple that should be seen between the towers is missing.
Up close, the site is surrounded by a high metal construction wall. In fact, for several months, even the large areas outside the wall were off limits because of lead dust released by the burning roof.
But somehow, despite the wall, walking down the narrowed-by-the-wall Rue du Cloitre-Notre-Dame, it felt as if I were closer to the building than before, as if the attention to what had happened gave a sharper focus to all kinds of detail.
Of course, not really close enough for the gargoyle close-ups; for that I'm indebted to the magic of telephoto lenses.
The wall is lined with photos from earlier stages of the work and explanations in French and English of the various trades and crafts involved in the work. This image shows installation of one of the pre-fabricated forms that were used to stabilize the flying buttresses—an interesting irony, since the buttresses were invented to stabilize the high walls of the church.
Below that, a view of the roof after the fire, centered on the gap left when the steeple fell, and then a view of carpenters creating a structure for the new roof, using ancient designs and methods and very old-growth wood.
Two more of the posted images. The first dramatically illustrates how flying buttresses allowed extreme roof heights which enabled the light and strength of Gothic architecture. The workers in the photo below that removing and preserving stonework for eventual reinstallation.
Every angle of the building reveals different sorts of coverings and scaffoldings, and nearly every one also reveals details of construction that were never visible before the fire. For instance, the window-like frames in the section below. In the third image, from before the fire, they are inside the lead roof tiles, behind the gables and vents.
While a few small symbolic events have taken place within the cathedral itself, it is clear that completion of the restoration by the 2024 Olympics, as once promised by President Macron, is not a realistic goal, although it remains possible that there might be some limited ceremonial use by then.
In the meantime, another large ancient church, a few minutes walk away on the Right Bank and next to the Louvre, is serving as a stand-in for Notre Dame. It's Saint-Germaine l'Auxerrois, a beauty in its own right, and the church of the French royal family when the Louvre was their home and not a museum.
And a final view of Notre Dame, made from the rooftop observatory of the Tour Montparnasse.