A Palace and Cathedral After an Earthquake

young black man sitting on rubble near a huge church bell that has fallen
Alyce Henson/Getty Images

The Haiti earthquake on January 12, 2010 would have been an unremarkable 7.3 magnitude event in many parts of the United States. In Port-au-Prince, however, it ruined both the Haiti National Palace (the Presidential Palace) and the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption (Port-au-Prince Cathedral) almost beyond recognition and certainly beyond occupancy. The mother and grandmother of 19-year-old Eder Charles died inside the church when it crumbled. The cathedral bell tumbled from the towers in a matter of seconds. Throughout Haiti, the catastrophic seismic event killed an estimated 316,000 people, with another 300,000 injured. Over a million Haitians became homeless.

Much of Port-au-Prince was reduced to rubble because of poor construction methods throughout the city. These photos are testament to the value of building codes and adherence to local construction standards.

Haiti National Palace Before the Earthquake

white-colored palace with three domes, symmetrical, center portico with pediment and columns
Harvey Meston/Getty Images (cropped)

The Haiti National Palace or Presidential Palace (Le Palais National) in Port-au-Prince, Haiti has been built and destroyed several times since Haitian independence from France in 1804. The original building was built for the French colonial governor but demolished in 1869 during one of the many revolutions in the history of Haiti. A new Palace was built but destroyed in 1912 by an explosion that also killed Haitian president Cincinnatus Leconte and several hundred soldiers. The Presidential Palace destroyed in the Haiti earthquake was constructed in 1918.

The Presidential Palace architect George H. Baussan was a Haitian who had studied Beaux-Arts architecture at the Ecole d'Architecture in Paris. Baussan's design for the Palace incorporated Beaux-Arts, Neoclassical, and French Renaissance Revival ideas.

In many ways, Haiti's Palace resembles America's presidential home, the White House in Washington, D.C. Although Haiti's Palace was constructed a century later than the White House, both buildings were influenced by similar architectural trends. Notice the large, central portico with a classical triangular pediment, ornamental details, and Ionic columns. It was symmetrical in shape with three Mansard-type pavilions, complete with cupolas, expressing a French aesthetic.

Haiti National Palace After the Earthquake

three domes fallen onto palace facade, no center portico
Frederic Dupoux/Getty Images (cropped)

The earthquake of January 12, 2010, devastated Haiti's National Palace, the presidential home in Port-au-Prince. The second floor and the central dome collapsed into the lower level. The portico with its four Ionic columns was destroyed.

Collapsed Roofs of the Haiti National Palace

aerial view of presidential palace, roofs on all wings have colapsed onto spaces below
Cameron Davidson/Corbis via Getty Images

This aerial view shows the destruction to the roof of Haiti's presidential palace. Notice how the roofs seemed to have held together but pancaked into vacant space as supports became compromised. Building codes with seismic specifications would have regulated the acceptability of framing in an earthquake-prone area.

Haiti National Palace Destroyed Dome and Portico

Haitian flag hangs on the ruins of a building after an earthquake
Frederic Dupoux/Getty Images

One day after the Haiti earthquake struck, the only remaining color was a Haitian flag draped over the remains of a demolished column of the destroyed portico. The National Palace was ruined beyond repair.

From September to December in 2012, workers demolished and removed the ruined Palace. The Haitian flag continued to fly throughout the ordeal.

An international competition to rebuild was announced by Haitian president Jovenel Moïse, who placed a ceremonial first stone on the site on the eighth anniversary in January 2018. The architecture may visually mimic the destroyed landmark, with updated infrastructure.

Port-au-Prince Cathedral Before the Earthquake

church with two steeples on either side of a circular rose window
Harvey Meston/Getty Images (cropped)

In addition to the National Palace, another Haitian landmark was the local cathedral. The Cathédrale Notre Dame de l'Assomption, also known as Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Port-au-Prince, took a long time to build. Construction began in 1883, in a Victorian-era Haiti, and was completed in 1914. It was formally consecrated in 1928.

In the planning stages, the Archbishop of Port-au-Prince was from Brittany, France, so the initial architect chosen in 1881 was also French a traditional Gothic cruciform floor plan was the basis for elegant European architectural details like grand round stained glass rose windows.

At the turn of the 20th century, no one in Haiti had ever seen the modern machinery brought to this small island by the Belgian engineers who constructed the Cathédrale with materials and processes foreign to native Haitian methods. The walls made entirely of poured and cast concrete would rise higher than any surrounding structure. The Roman Catholic cathedral was to be built with European elegance and grandeur that would dominate the Port-au-Prince landscape.

Port-au-Prince Cathedral After the Earthquake

side of a church surrounded by rubble
Frederic Dupoux/Getty Images

The Haiti earthquake in 2010 damaged most of the major churches and seminaries in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, including its national cathedral.

This Haitian sacred space, that took decades for men to plan and build, was destroyed by nature in a matter of seconds. The Cathédrale Notre Dame de l'Assomption collapsed on January 12, 2010. The body of Joseph Serge Miot, archbishop of Port-au-Prince, was found in the ruins of the archdiocese.

Aerial View of Port-au-Prince Cathedral Ruins

aerial view of cathedral walls with no roof, no steeples
Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kristopher Wilson, U.S. Navy, Public Domain

The roof and upper walls tumbled down during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The spires toppled and glass was shattered. In the day following the Haitian earthquake, scavengers raped the building of anything remaining in value, including the metal of the stained glass windows.

Aerial views show the devastation of a structure that had struggled to be built and maintained. Even before the tragedy, church officials admitted that the national cathedral was in disrepair. Haiti is one of the poorest nations in the world. However, the concrete cathedral walls, a new construction technique in Haiti, were still standing although badly damaged.

Rebuilding the Haiti Cathédrale

silhouette of man looking up at ruined cathedral
John Moore/Getty Images (cropped)

The architect of Cathédrale Notre Dame de l'Assomption, André Michel Ménard, designed a cathedral similar to ones seen in his native France. Described as a "grand Romanesque structure with Coptic spires," the Port-au-Prince church was larger than anything ever seen before in Haiti:

"84 meters in length and 29 meters in width with the transept extending 49 meters across."

Late Gothic style circular rose windows incorporated popular stained glass design.

Before the earthquake, Haiti's Notre Dame de L'Assomption Cathedral in Port-au-Prince (NDAPAP) displayed the grandeur of the sacred architecture. After the 7.3 magnitude earthquake shook the island, the facade of the grand entrance remained standing partially. The grand spires had toppled.

Like the National Palace, NDAPAP will be rebuilt. Puerto Rican architect Segundo Cardona and his firm SCF Arquitectos won a 2012 competition to redesign what will again be the national cathedral in Port-au-Prince. Cardona's design may preserve the old church's facade, but the new cathedral will be contemporary.

The Miami Herald called the winning design "a modern interpretation of the traditional architecture of a cathedral." The original facade will be reinforced and rebuilt, including new bell towers. But, instead of passing through and entering a sanctuary, visitors will enter into an open-air memory garden that leads to the new church. The modern sanctuary will be a circular structure built at the cross of the old cruciform floor plan.

Rebuilding is never an easy task, and Haiti seems to have its own issues. In December 2017 a popular priest was murdered, and some townspeople have been suspicious that the Haitian government was involved. "The church and the Haitian government are intertwined in ways unknown in most other countries," reports Wyatt Massey. "In a country strained by poverty, the churches are institutions with money and, therefore, targets for the desperate or malicious."

It's up for grabs which landmark will be completed first, the governments or the churches. What Haitian buildings remain standing after the next earthquake will depend on who avoids construction short cuts.


  • The Past, The Cathedral and "Rebuilding a Cathedral Destroyed," NDAPAP, http://competition.ndapap.org/winners.php?projID=1028, PDF at http://ndapap.org/downloads/Rebuilding_A_Cathedral_Destroyed.pdf [accessed January 9, 2014]
  • "Puerto Rican team wins design competition for Haitian Cathedral" by Anna Edgerton, Miami Herald, December 20, 2012, http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/12/20/3149872/puerto-rican-team-wins-design.html [accessed January 9, 2014]
  • Wyatt Massey. "Murder of priest stokes fear of violence against clergy and religious in Haiti," America: The Jesuit Review, February 12, 2018, https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2018/02/12/murder-priest-stokes-fear-violence-against-clergy-and-religious-haiti [accessed June 9, 2018]
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Craven, Jackie. "A Palace and Cathedral After an Earthquake." ThoughtCo, Jul. 29, 2021, thoughtco.com/national-palace-after-haiti-earthquake-177724. Craven, Jackie. (2021, July 29). A Palace and Cathedral After an Earthquake. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/national-palace-after-haiti-earthquake-177724 Craven, Jackie. "A Palace and Cathedral After an Earthquake." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/national-palace-after-haiti-earthquake-177724 (accessed June 7, 2023).