As Philadelphians know all too well, important buildings are destroyed all the time. But they usually disappear when no one is looking. There was something about seeing flames lick at the roof of Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral in real time Monday, on television and on social media, that drove home how easy it is to lose the great accomplishments of our civilization.

Notre Dame isn’t just any old religious building, of course. The Gothic cathedral, whose first stone was laid by a king and a pope in 1163, is the most important building in France, a defining fixture on the Paris skyline and among the greatest works of architecture the world has produced. Even people who have never stood in awe before its twin “black towers,” as Victor Hugo called them, know the building from his novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or the many film versions based on the story of Quasimodo and Esmeralda. But the church is really the book’s main character.

Hugo was an early preservationist who wrote his novel in 1831 primarily as a call to action. At the time the book came out, Notre Dame was falling apart from neglect, and on its way to becoming a full-fledged ruin. The church had taken a beating in the French Revolution when insurgents attacked the building as a symbol of the oppressive regime, beheading the statues of biblical kings that decorated the facade and damaging its interior. Hugo wanted to convince the French that the cathedral was an integral part of their identity, whether they were Catholics and believers, or not. He was determined to goad them into doing something to save Notre Dame.

His main point was that the products of our cultural heritage are worth cherishing, even when they no longer perform their original function, and even when society has moved on. “Great buildings, like great mountains, are the work of centuries,” Hugo observed in the novel. They deserve respect. His mission succeeded, and the French state began a major preservation effort in 1844. Not only did the architects, Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, carefully restore many of the original features; they came up with some of their own innovations. One of those was the delicate spire that glowed red hot on Monday before disintegrating in full view of the world.

Notre Dame has survived so many calamities over the last century — World Wars I and II specifically — that it is painful to learn another restoration may have been what led to the blaze. It’s not clear whether the medieval building was protected by modern fire-suppression systems. If there were none in the building — a major tourist attraction — the French government owes the world an explanation.

Despite the availability of such protections against the ravages of fire, governments around the world have been slow to demand them. Only last September, the National Museum of Brazil burned to the ground after decades of official neglect and underfunding. That fire destroyed some of the greatest anthropological and artistic treasures of South America, deleting much of Brazil’s cultural record.

A four-alarm fire in February 2018 damaged buildings on Chestnut Street between Second and Third Streets in Philadelphia, causing the evacuation of about 150 people.
MICHAEL BRYANT
A four-alarm fire in February 2018 damaged buildings on Chestnut Street between Second and Third Streets in Philadelphia, causing the evacuation of about 150 people.

Philadelphia lost a key piece of its early mercantile history last year — while not nearly of the same importance — when fire ravaged a warehouse at Second and Chestnut that had been built in 1856 to store wine and spirits arriving at the city’s Delaware River port. The ragged gap that occupies the spot now has greatly diminished the integrity of the row of cast-iron facades on Chestnut Street. Perhaps more important, it has wiped out a piece of the city’s cultural memory, from a time when Philadelphia was America’s dominant commercial center. One good to come out of that tragedy is that the Department of Licenses and Inspections has adopted new rules requiring sprinklers in similar kinds of interconnected buildings.

The fire at Notre Dame will inevitably be compared to the attacks that ravaged the World Trade Center towers in 2001. Their destruction was also watched in real time. But those office towers didn’t become so meaningful until after they became the targets of terrorists.

Unlike most American cities, Philadelphia’s identity rests on the fact that much of the historic fabric here remains largely intact. That patrimony is one of the city’s strongest assets. But in the rush to develop and modernize, Philadelphia is thoughtlessly letting go of many significant buildings that played a role in the city’s formation and that are part of our common heritage.

While there are frequent public protests, like the one against the planned demolition of five buildings on Jewelers’ Row, what would the outcry be like if we were glued to our screens watching the destruction play out in real time? The same question can be asked about climate change. Would we respond with greater urgency if we could see the warming of the Arctic take place in a 30-second clip on Twitter? Most of our cultural losses occur too slowly to provoke the emotional response we felt watching Paris burn.

“Notre Dame was destroyed, but the soul of France was not,” Michel Aupetit, the archbishop of Paris, assured the French in a radio interview. French President Emmanuel Macron assured the country that the cathedral will be restored, again.

In Philadelphia, the Kenney administration’s preservation task force has just produced a report suggesting ways to help the city think strategically about retaining its common cultural inheritance. Because the city doesn’t even have a list of the buildings that are meaningful and worthy of protection, the task force proposed creating an architectural inventory. But assuming funding can be found for the effort, that process could take years. Meanwhile many more worthy structures will be lost.

Philadelphia isn’t burning, but we need to treat it as if it were. And people all over the world were watching.