From 1919 to 1938
A model of restoration

 

The Reims Cathedral sustained considerable damage during World War I.

Twenty years were necessary for the chief architect Henri Deneux (1874-1969) to partially restore it to its former splendour.

Excluding Versailles, it was the largest restoration site in progress during the years between the two World Wars.

It was also highly symbolic and aroused great expectations from restoration theoreticians.

 

Interior of the Reims Cathedral

after the bombardments of 1914-1917:

the choir and the high altar.

Old post card. Private collection.

Click to enlarge

 

Arduous beginnings

 

However, the beginning was arduous as Henri Deneux found it impossible to find experienced workmen to undertake the urgent repairs.
To these labour problems, procurement difficulties were rapidly added. Reconstruction in France necessitated large quantities of materials, leading to shortages and a general increase in raw material prices.

 

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The objective of these first restorations supervised by Henri Deneux was to return a part of the edifice to the congregation as quickly as possible.
In 1919, this work consisted of clearing away debris, inventorying all the fragments, consolidating, and installing temporary roofing. But before all this, it was necessary to remove structures that had partially protected the monument from war damage.

 

 

Temporary roofing installed in 1919,

aerial view

© Médiathèque de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine

Fonds Deneux, MH 061810

 

Henri Deneux also took advantage of these renovations to carry out archaeological excavations in several areas of the Cathedral until the end of 1932. These excavations led to real advances in the understanding of the monument's history.

 

The first renovations returned the north arm of the transept and part of the northern ambulatory to the congregation. It was in this temporary church that Archbishop Louis Henri Luçon (1842-1929) celebrated Christmas Mass on December 25, 1919.

 

In January 1920, after a violent storm, a gable came loose and fell inside Saint Remi Basilica.
Realising that similar accidents could happen at the Cathedral, restoration on it was halted, while Henri Deneux devoted all his efforts to consolidation of the monument.

 

Palace of Tau: inventory of fragments

from the Cathedral from the 1920s

© Médiathèque de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine -

Photography archives, MH 016981

Click to enlarge

 

 

The Rockefeller donations

 

On May 3, 1924, the announcement of the first Rockefeller donation gave Henri Deneux hope of accelerating the restorations. He now possessed the means necessary for the reconstitution of the attic of the nave (1924-1927), and the restitution of the roof and the angel bell tower (1935).

 

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In November 1926, when all seemed ready for the resumption of religious services in the nave, plaster falling on the high altar delayed their return.

The superstructure had been more damaged than previously believed, and funds were short. Nevertheless, the interior restoration of the nave was finished in 1927 and inaugurated with grand pomp and ceremony on May 11 and 26. However, this facility was still temporary.

The arrival of the second Rockefeller donation made the difference, giving Henri Deneux the financial means to create the new roof framework in reinforced concrete.

Archaeological excavations of Henri Deneux

in the Cathedral (1920-1932)

© Médiathèque de l'Architecture et du Patrimoine

Photography archives

 

In 1936, Henri Deneux benefited from a new financial boon, this time public. Aimed at reducing rising unemployment which followed the world economic crisis, the government voted a law instigating a program of great public works, the "Plan Marquet", on July 7, 1934.



July 1938: The grand inaugurations

From 8 to 10 July 1938, the restoration of the Reims Cathedral was celebrated with grand inauguration ceremonies. The world rediscovered one of its great marvels.

Of course, all the scars from the war had not disappeared. Restoration work continues today, but the Deneux era had ended.

Skilfully, patiently, Henri Deneux was able to reconcile the rigours of conservation with the latest innovations in monumental restoration.


Click to enlarge

Scars from World War I:

detail of the north side of the great rose window of the western façade

© DRAC Champagne-Ardenne