St. Rule’s Tower looms over what was once the enormous Cathedral of St. Andrew in St. Andrews, Scotland. John Knox stoked a Protestant mob to ransack the cathedral in 1559. The building fell into disrepair. Today, a concrete line delineates an abstract of the cathedral, outlining ruins. The nave and apse still stand, casting a shadow of a church that once was.
The Allies hit the cathedral in Cologne, Germany 14 times during World War II. But much of the structure remained, along with its twin, signature spires which pierce the sky. That’s what made the cathedral so easy for pilots to find during the war. The building still stands and remains the tallest Roman Catholic church on the planet.
During The War of 1812’s “Battle of Bladensburg,” the British burned both the White House and the U.S. Capitol. Much like the cathedral in Cologne, the new Capitol was easy to spy, resting atop what was known as Jenkins’ Hill. Lacking enough wood to burn the building to the ground, the British ignited books from the Library of Congress as fuel. In those days, the Library of Congress was located inside the Capitol – the same space now occupied by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
Wooden ceilings and floors burned quickly amid the heat. But much of the stone and masonry survived, although singed. To this day, tour guides note that the columns festooned with corn-cobs remain near the old Senate entrance to the Capitol, surviving the fire.
Ironically, a massive thunderstorm, spinning off a tornado along what is now Constitution Avenue, may have salvaged the rest of Washington. The storm prevented the British from razing the rest of the city.
They will rebuild Notre Dame, which suffered its own terrible blaze on Monday.
Notre Dame withstood war – The French Revolution and Napoleon. What we know today as “Notre Dame” is not the same Notre Dame when it was constructed in the 13th Century; the spire that fell in the fire isn’t the original, for instance.
But when terrible things happen to old, historic places … those places evolve.
The Capitol was divided into the House and Senate wings when the British tore through. The Capitol Dome, as we know it today, was decades away. The contemporary House and Senate wings weren’t even fully conceived.
The U.S. Capitol is in a perpetual state of evolution. The original Senate and House wings the British torched more than two centuries ago were but a sliver of what they are today. Scaffolding encircled the Capitol Dome from 2013 through 2016 for the first major overhaul since the late 1950s. A superstructure covered the Senate wing not long after that. Now it’s the turn for the House wing.
The Cannon House Office Building across the street is now two years into a decade-long renovation. Workers have already refurbished parts of the building. Other corridors remain closed. There is an obvious, startling difference between the revamped sections of Cannon and those still in need of repair. The Cannon Rotunda, home to many a TV news standup and interview, is brighter and warmer. Other halls shine with modern fixtures. Cannon used to suffer from a lack of elevators. Workers have added sleek, new elevators to transport tourists, aides and lawmakers.
Of course, it wasn’t always like this. There wasn’t even a Cannon House Office Building – let alone Longworth and Rayburn House Office Buildings – until 1908. And Cannon was originally the House Office Building – because it was the only one. Congress named the building after House Speaker Joe Cannon, R-Ill., in 1962.
The Capitol complex is an organic, living, breathing place. The same can be said for Notre Dame and dozens of other historic sites around the world. The places we see today often withstand weather, fire, war – to say nothing of political turmoil.
Despite the massive fire, Notre Dame remains. The main belfry towers remain. The interior of the main sanctuary remains relatively intact considering the severity of the blaze.
But like so many historic structures around the globe, they change and evolve. The Notre Dame today was not the Notre Dame of Victor Hugo. It wasn’t even the Notre Dame of World War II or the funeral of Charles de Gaulle of 1970.
The U.S. Capitol isn’t the same as when the British tore through the building during the Battle of Bladensburg. There was no Rotunda. No Statuary Hall. No Ohio Clock Corridor. Trams didn’t whisk people underground between the Capitol and the Senate Office Buildings. The Statue of Freedom didn’t puncture the sky atop the original, wooden, “Bullfinch Dome.” After the 1812 fire, there was even a move by the incipient federal government to ditch Washington and head north to Philadelphia. The House of Representatives voted down a plan 83-54 to decamp from Washington. And in 1815, they decided to permanently maintain the government in Washington. It took until 1819 for the original parts of the half-built Capitol to re-open.
The Capitol absorbed these changes and transformed into what it is today. But early inhabitants of Washington, D.C., would barely recognize the congressional edifice now. The new House and Senate Office Buildings, the Capitol Visitor’s Center, even the Dome and Rotunda themselves are grafted onto the complex. Who knows what the Capitol will look like in 50 or 100 years – let alone 800.
The same with Notre Dame. It will change. And Paris will change with it. Today’s manifestation of Notre Dame is not what it will be.
But these buildings are testaments – not to themselves, but of what goes on between the walls and what they inspire. The salvation of spirit through the celebration of faith at Notre Dame. The formation of the most robust, vibrant democracy in the history of the world in the Capitol.
The U.S. Capitol is not just what was. But what it will yet become.
And the same is true for Notre Dame.