We learned to restore the past at the same time and place that we learned, through the miracle of photography, to capture the present: in the second quarter of the 19th century, in France. Scroll to the bottom of this story and you’ll see one bit of evidence—the first photograph ever taken of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. That daguerreotype, made in 1838 or 1839 by Louis Daguerre himself, shows a telling similarity to the church as it looks today, after the catastrophic 2019 fire: There’s no spire.
The spire that burned in 2019, along with Notre Dame’s entire roof and its oak-timber attic, did not yet exist in 1839. It was built during a two-decade long restoration of