The fire in 1831 spared the Cathedral of Notre Dame itself. The rioters scrambled up the roof and toppled a giant iron cross; they shattered stained glass, took axes to a statue of Jesus, smashed one of the Virgin Mary. But they were really after the archbishop of Paris, who wasn’t there—and so they sacked his palace, which stood south of the church, facing the Seine River. Then they set fire to it. The palace is gone now. A 250-foot-tall construction crane stands on that spot.
There’s a drawing of the scene that night, February 14, 1831, viewed from the Quai de Montebello, across the Seine. It was made by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc—the man who, 13 years later, would undertake a 20-year restoration of the cathedral. Viollet-le-Duc was only 17 when he witnessed the mob attack. In his hasty pencil sketch, agitated stick figures swarm the palace, hurling furniture and other valuables out the windows and into the river. Behind all that stands Notre Dame, then six centuries old.
In 1980, also at age 17, Philippe Villeneuve saw an exhibit about Viollet-le-Duc at the Grand Palais. He knew he wanted to be an architect—he was already building an elaborate model of Notre Dame—but he didn’t know you could specialize in historic buildings. Today he’s one of 35 “chief architects of historic monuments” in France, a profession most famously embodied by Viollet-le-Duc. Villeneuve has directed restoration work at Notre Dame since 2013, and with terrible urgency since the spring of 2019, when a fire ripped the top off the cathedral. The building has been stabilized at last; reconstruction is about to begin. In more ways than one, Villeneuve owes his current mission, the fight of his professional life, to his ingenious predecessor, Viollet-le-Duc.