Notre Dame Cathedral burned this week, consumed by a fierce fire that swallowed its Gothic spires and charred its cavernous ceilings. Even before experts had fully assessed the damage, French President Emmanuel Macron said the country would rebuild Notre Dame within five years — that the restored cathedral would be “even more beautiful.”
The loss is devastating, for the French and a world’s worth of visitors who came to be humbled by Notre Dame’s history. But hope for a full comeback is not unprecedented. For centuries, buildings across Europe have burned and broken — then rose again from the ashes.
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Venice | Built 1514 | Destroyed 1902 | Restored 1912
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One of Venice’s chief attractions, the campanile at St. Mark’s — a 323-foot bell tower with an angel-topped spire — has offered visitors sprawling views of the Italian city for centuries. Travelers can spot it from sea. The campanile even hosted Galileo, who used it as an observatory and demonstration point for his telescope.
The structure endured earthquakes and lightning strikes, but in 1902 and without warning, the tower collapsed. The church survived, but the once-soaring campanile was reduced to rubble. The five original bells, which rang to signal meetings, the end of the workday and executions, were destroyed.
Italian authorities vowed to rebuild, and in 1903 the first stone was laid. Nine years later, in 1912, the new campanile was inaugurated on St. Mark’s feast day. The weathercock angel that topped the spire, of the Archangel Gabriel, was reconstructed using fragments of the original. The bells were recast and donated by Pope Pius X.
The tower that stands today is a near replica of the original — with some modern updates. Now, it has an elevator.
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London | Built 1703 | Bombed 1940s
Buckingham Palace, the home of Britain’s royal family, endured nine direct bomb hits during World War II. Against the recommendation of the the Foreign Office, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth refused to flee the country.
The north screen of the East Front was damaged during bombing raids, as was the north wing of the palace. The Victorian private chapel there was destroyed. Palace windows were blown out. A bomb left a crater and destroyed the swimming pool. Another explosion ruptured a water main.
Because damage to the palace wasn’t extensive, officials were able to repair the compound in far less time that it took other structures damaged in World War II to return to their former glory.
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Warsaw, Poland | Built 1568-1572 | Burned 1940s | Restored 1984
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Most of Warsaw, the capital city of Poland, was obliterated over years of fighting in World War II. By 1945, it was estimated that 72 percent of homes and 90 percent of industrial infrastructure and historic monuments had been destroyed, reported Culture.pl.
This included the Royal Castle, a pentagonal structure that housed the royal family and parliament. It was bombed in 1939, at the beginning of the war, and five years later systematically demolished by Nazi forces. For decades, as communists rebuilt the city, the castle remained abandoned, nothing more than a paved slab with benches and skeletal walls.
In 1949, Polish Parliament voted to rebuild the castle, but it wasn’t until 1971 that the work began. The project was largely funded by donations from Poles at home and abroad.
The castle tower was restored and the clock inside restarted in 1974, functional for the first time in 35 years. Next came progress on the interior, and in 1984, the castle was officially reopened to the public. The castle completion marked the end of the Historic Center of Warsaw’s restoration. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
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Berlin, Germany | Built 1894 | Burned 1933, bombed 1940s | Restored 1999
The Reichstag, the historic seat of German parliament, first burned in 1933 — a mysterious arson that gave Adolf Hitler an opportunity to capitalize on the country’s fears and paranoia, and ultimately bring his Nazi Party to power. That fire destroyed the Reichstag’s debate chamber and famous gilded cupola — and foretold the destruction to come a decade later.
The Reichstag was assaulted again during World War II, left in ruins after the battle of Berlin at the end of the war. Soldiers covered the charred walls with graffiti.
The structurally unsound cupola was demolished in 1954, and in 1955, the German parliament voted to rebuild the Reichstag — without a new dome. The graffiti was covered by undignified paneling, and the decorative figures destroyed in the war were not restored.
But the version of the Reichstag that stands today was not completed until 1999, after British architect Norman Foster modernized it. He brought back the cupola, now a distinguished, stunning glass dome, and he removed the panels, revealing the bullet-pocked walls and fading graffiti that remind visitors of all that happened there.
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Cassino, Italy | Built 529 | Burned 1944 | Restored 1964
In 1943, the year before the bombs fell and the ancient abbey was destroyed, the keepers of Montecassino executed a strategic and orchestrated plan to move the compound’s treasured artifacts to the Vatican for safekeeping.
For months in 1944, World War II came to the abbey. From the sky, the Allies assaulted the abbey, which they suspected German forces were using as an observation point because it sat atop a mountain that overlooked the city. The unrelenting attack on Montecassino nearly flattened it, ending when Polish forces took the ruins on May 18, 1944.
The war finally ended, and the rebuilding began.
In 1949, officials declared that the abbey would be restored “where it was, as it was.” It was finally reconsecrated in 1964 by Pope Paul VI.