Rick Brown couldn’t believe his eyes when, in 2019, he watched the roof of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris go up in smoke. The founder of Handshouse, an organization that studies by building replicas, immediately received messages after the fire. What if his organization could help rebuild the cathedral in the medieval style? Thanks to American carpenters motivated by the project, he turned to the French association Charpentiers sans frontières and its president, François Calame.
“François put us in touch with the architecture team in Paris,” explains the sculptor by training. “They sent us the information we needed to rebuild a truss of the cathedral’s frame with the tools and methods of the time.” The American team now wants to donate this truss number 6, which was one of the oldest trusses in the frame, to France, and hopes to see it take its place in the rebuilt cathedral, just above the choir.
“Our project is to show the French and the world the importance of restoring historic buildings, but also to show our solidarity,” Rick Brown emphasizes. “The architect in France said he was honored that the Americans were interested.” Nevertheless, the Parisian team has not yet validated the actual use of the truss in the future reconstruction of the roof.
A Major Challenge
Plans in hand, Rick Brown had to assemble a team of volunteers and partners to help house and work on the frame. “I already knew three carpenters who responded immediately,” he recalls, among them Alicia Spence, a carpenter and construction manager in Massachusetts.
“I am part of the organization ‘Carpenters Without Borders,’ I already have a lot of experience in restoring old buildings,” explains Spence, adding that “what I liked was the solidarity of the group, and the message that we sent to the world, that we must save the treasures of humanity like the Cathedral of Notre Dame.”
Between July 26 and August 4, in front of the Basilica of D.C.’s Catholic University in Washington, about 60 volunteers took typical 12th century tools in hand to saw and nail the wooden planks together.
“The biggest challenge was finding the wood that was closest to French oak,” she says. The carpenters eventually found an American white oak, in a West Virginia forest, that the group of professionals agreed upon.
DC institutions step up
Without giving exact numbers, Rick Brown said many private donors helped fund the construction. But what also helped the project were the many institutions that lent a hand with logistics.
“The president of Washington D.C.’s Catholic University was very excited about our project, which is why we waited until the summer to begin construction,” he points out, noting that as a result “the dorms and cafeteria were available to us.” The diocese itself is enthusiastic and has offered to lend land to develop the project.
The National Park Service in Washington, D.C., offered to display their work on the National Mall on August 6. And since then, the National Building Museum has been showing the piece of architecture within its walls. “As soon as we spoke with the museum, the management gave us great support and will give access to our project until mid-September,” he confides.
What’s next? “The farm should go to Atlanta, and maybe to a university in St. Louis, it’s going to make its own trip!” exclaims the project’s founder. And maybe one day, end up on one of the most beautiful rooftops in Paris!