Tonya Ohnstad and a group of carpenters, architecture students and volunteers at the Catholic University of America use 800-year-old methods to reconstruct a vital component of the Notre Dame Cathedral, initially constructed in 1345.
The handmade piece will be presented as a gift to France and used to reconstruct the Paris landmark, devastated by a fire in 2019.
The restoration of Notre Dame has drawn significant international attention since a fire broke out in its attic in 2019 during renovations. The blaze damaged the iconic lead spire and destroyed “the forest,” a group of trusses made from ancient wooden logs from a French forest almost a millennium ago.
Investigators believe that the fire was accidental and started because of an electrical circuit issue. Since the fire, millions of dollars are pouring into the reconstruction effort from all over the world.
French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to rebuild the cathedral in the image of the 1844 design of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, a French architect who oversaw restoration work on the cathedral at that time. Macron’s goal is to have the project complete for the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics, a timeline that some experts have deemed unrealistic.
There has been significant debate regarding how the cathedral is to be rebuilt. Some argue for a more modern build, and others strive for historical accuracy and adherence to Viollet-le-Duc’s design. In the end, a historical angle won out within reason while adhering to current safety standards.
The Catholic University in Washington DC decided to construct the truss as authentically as possible with local partners, professional carpenters, traditional building experts and Charpentiers sans Frontières (Carpenters without Borders).
The students and their advisers planned the construction by creating scaled models of the 45 feet wide and 35 feet tall truss before using axes to hew the wood in a local Virginia forest. They used medieval joinery techniques to join the timber according to the original design.
Ohnstad says the biggest goal of authenticity isn’t how the new truss is built but the way it is made. “The architect and the builder split somewhere in the Middle Ages,” Ohnstad says. “For me, it is about architects and builders working in concert. It is really about the opportunity for these two people to meet again and to have the chance to understand each other a little better.”