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British artisans preach patience for France's Notre Dame restoration


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: After last month's devastating fire at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, leading stonemasons offered a warning: Think carefully about reconstruction, or risk substandard work.

Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant visits a cathedral in the English city of York to see how the artisans there rebuilt after a fire in 1984.

This report is part of our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Malcolm Brabant: Like Notre Dame, York Minster has dominated the landscape for centuries. It has similar architectural characteristics, and it offers the hope of recovery from the inferno.

Sarah Brown: In July 1984, it was a very hot summer. And in the early hours of the morning, there was an electrical storm, which it's believed struck the minster and set up a fire smoldering in the roof. And because we have both a timber roof and a timber vault here in York, the fire spread into the vault, and of course, ran the risk of affecting the whole building.

Malcolm Brabant: Sarah Brown heads the trust which cares for stained glass. She's looking up at the now restored vault or inner roof of the wing that was gutted.

York's Glaziers have unique experience of restoring fire-damaged glass, and their services have been offered to Notre Dame.

Sarah Brown: Glass is susceptible to extreme heat. And it's susceptible to rapid cooling. In a fire situation, it's cooling rapidly, particularly if gallons and gallons of water are being poured over the structure, which obviously is the case both here and in Paris.

And this causes a kind of thermal shock. So, although the windows appear for the most part to be surviving in the windows, close up, you will probably see lots of micro-cracks in the glass, which make it now vulnerable to mechanical damage, to stresses and strains, high winds, et cetera.

Malcolm Brabant: York has a team of stonemasons working constantly to replace crumbling elements of the minster.

They're led by John David. He was at the fire in 1984 and helped to rescue treasures before the blazing roof was brought down deliberately to stop the flames from spreading to the main body of the minster.

John David: What we have now and what we learned from the fire was, that we compartmentalized all the roofs in the minster. So now -- in their fireproofing -- so, if a fire breaks out anywhere, it can reasonably be contained if it's -- if the fire people get here quick enough.

Malcolm Brabant: Although it looks like stone, the vault of the restored wing is wooden and therefore combustible. But there is no sprinkler system in place, because John David says the volume of water involved would damage the building's fabric. He believes the French should follow York Minster's lead.

John David: State-of-the-art alarms and smoke detectors, flame detectors, these are the sort of things that they need, plus breaking the roof off into separate areas and how what you have is actually a map in a control room somewhere in the cathedral which shows, if an alarm goes off in a certain area, you know exactly where they come.

And also, the fire service, as in York, the fire service regularly come to do a practice.

Malcolm Brabant: York is monitoring the debate in France about the nature of Notre Dame's restoration. Should it be true to its medieval origins or something modern?

Canon Michael Smith is a traditionalist.

The Rev. Canon Michael Smith: I think we have to acknowledge that places like here and places like Notre Dame are actually repositories of prayer. They hold the memory, they hold the joys and sorrows, the tears and the laughter, the questions, the doubts, the affirmations of faith of generations of people.

Malcolm Brabant: Although York's prevailing attitude towards restoration is conservative, vignettes of modernity exist.

In the roof timbers, there's an image of the moon landing. Harriet Pace is creating a replacement grotesque, which is like a gargoyle, except it doesn't have a water spout. And the inspiration for the face is her late father, a sculptor.

Harriet Pace: The original had a high collar and a hood and a cloak. So, I copied those as reference points and decided to do a doctor. But the face I decided to do of my dad, just purely because I wanted to carry on his skills and put them in the stonework and then just have him as a memory on the side of the cathedral.

Malcolm Brabant: But that's about as modern as it gets in York. John David fears the French will abandon traditional materials and craft skills such as these in order to fulfill President Macron's pledge to restore Notre Dame in five years.

John David: It's not going to be achievable without any sort of very poor workmanship or poor quality. And I hope he will think again. These cathedrals are above politics. They're for the people. There's no way that it can be done in five years with care and proper consideration for the building.

Malcolm Brabant: So far, the amount that has been pledged to restore Notre Dame is close to a billion dollars. Most of this money is potentially going to come from French billionaires or corporations.

Now, these apparent acts of philanthropy have been condemned around the world by people who believe that the potential donors are just trying to build their own legacy or to gain tax advantages. They have been criticized for rescuing a building, but not looking after people in need.

Now, this county here, Yorkshire, is renowned in Britain for being a place for plain speaking and common sense. So, what's the Yorkshire view of the ethics of this issue?

The Rev. Canon Adrian Botwright: As always, these things are not either/or, but both/and. I'm always cautious about judging people's motives. It may well be that we can have doubts about them, but people are often more generous than we realize. And I wouldn't want to be too judgmental about that.

Malcolm Brabant: Canon Adrian Botwright has recently retired after three decades as pastor of a large Yorkshire parish.

The Rev. Canon Adrian Botwright: Yes, a lot of money will be needed to rebuild Notre Dame. But perhaps we shouldn't always judge things by the amount of money they take. The value is beyond just the amount of money that is spent upon them.

And I think I would argue that, for a nation that's lost, as this country certainly has and arguably many countries in Europe have, lost a sense of purpose, lost a sense of meaning and significance, the role that a building like that plays is colossal.

Malcolm Brabant: The minster's Canon Michael Smith believes that perhaps 10 percent of donations towards Notre Dame should go to good human causes.

The Rev. Canon Michael Smith: I think we impoverish the whole of society if we don't make beautiful things. I think art is important. Beautiful places, beautiful spaces, are really, really important.

That's not to say that the people who sleep in our doorways aren't important. They're just as important, probably more -- well, they are more important. But we have to care for them, but we also have to have beautiful places where people can come and think and be challenged and connect with the big questions of life. And that's what buildings like this do to people.

Malcolm Brabant: In the minster's experience, it'll take at least a year to evaluate Notre Dame's restoration needs. The French should know that every move will be closely scrutinized here in Northern England.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Malcolm Brabant in York.

Judy Woodruff: Today, we're debuting Canvas Online, our brand-new Web site for arts and culture stories from the "NewsHour" and from your local PBS stations around the country.

Explore now at And join our Facebook community, dedicated to conversations around art in all its forms. That's at

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