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The comeback of Notre Dame: American builders help to restore iconic Paris landmark

“Did you ever think you’d be able to look at Notre Dame and say, ‘I built that?’” American carpenter Hank Silver said.
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PARIS — Five years ago a fire brought Paris’ Notre Dame Cathedral to its knees, destroying the vaulted wooden ceiling and spire.

In Hatfield, Massachusetts, carpenter Hank Silver watched in horror as flames shot into the air and rapidly spread over the fabled Gothic building’s roof, known as “The Forest” because of its long planks of 800-year-old wood. 

Soon, Silver joined an army of skilled craftsmen from around the world and went to the building’s aid. Now Paris’ soaring medieval landmark is ready to serve as a symbol of the French capital.

Notre Dame Cathedral Restoration
A huge fire swept through the roof of the famed Notre Dame Cathedral in central Paris on April 15, 2019.Geoffroy Van Der Hassely / AFP - Getty Images file

The work “changed my life,” Silver told NBC News on Sunday, and he said it had given him a new appreciation of the skills carpenters had in the Middle Ages. “It’s a once in a millennium experience,” he said in an interview. “Having that as my job site at my place of work every day does not get old.”Silver, who is part of Carpenters Without Borders, a team of volunteers who restore historical structures the world over, is one of a handful of craftsmen from around the world who are trained to carry out the work of rebuilding Notre Dame. 

Much of what they’ve done requires tools re-created on site to match those used by workers centuries ago before the towering symbol of French national pride was completed in 1345. 

The day ‘la fléche’ came down

On April 15, 2019, thousands of horrified Parisians and tourists looked on, many with tears in their eyes, as Notre Dame’s iconic spire — known in France as “la fléche,” or arrow — lurched and crashed into the inferno. In a matter of minutes, one of the most recognizable sights in the French capital was gone. 

The following day, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to rebuild the edifice within five years, a pledge that left many experts skeptical at the time. 

Emily Guerry, a senior lecturer of medieval European history at Britain’s University of Kent, was among them. “I was one of those people,” she said. “I thought no way, you’re not going to be able to find the trees.”

Hank Silver works on restorations at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.
Carpenter Hank Silver making repairs to the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Joel Lawrence / NBC News

However, 2,000 Oak trees were sourced from forests around Europe for the rebuild. Some of them up to 400 years old, they were left to dry for 12 to 19 months before the carpenters used them. Guerry said she thought finding the money for the expensive rebuild might have been an issue, “but, gosh, the people wanted Notre Dame back.” 

Rebuilding Notre Dame de Paris, the public body responsible for the conservation and restoration of the cathedral, estimated it would cost $760 million. To date 340,000 donors from more than 150 countries have donated around $895 million, it says on its website.    

Guerry said the French state and the Catholic Church had also contributed along with wealthy dynasties. It was very “medieval to have the elite families step forward and donate,” she added.   

“What’s perhaps slightly different today is there is no demand to put their name on the building,” she said. “But what a wonderful legacy to leave behind.”

“We all felt something watching that spire fall,” she added. “It made us feel like we were losing a part of our history, our heritage and our connection to our spiritual selves, and no matter where you were in the world watching this ancient building catch fire, you felt for the people of Paris, you felt for the people of France and perhaps you felt for the people who built it.” 

“Significant progress” has been made on the restoration work, according to a report last year by the Friends of Notre Dame de Paris, a nonprofit that raises money for the restoration work.

Restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral in France is expected to be completed this year
The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on Saturday, as restoration work continues.Esra Taskin / Anadolu via Getty Images

And ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics, work by the crack team of carpenters, scaffolding experts, professional climbers, organ mechanics and others continues apace at the cathedral, which oversees Paris from an island on the Seine river.While the most modern of building methods are being employed, Silver, the carpenter, said when NBC News first interviewed him at a workshop in Normandy last year that tools had been re-created on site to match those used centuries ago, by the original builders. 

“We’re using a mix of 13th-century tools such as the broad axes or dog walk — to finish all the surfaces, we’re using chisels and saws, mallets,” he said. “Everything is finished by hand so that the result is an almost identical replica of the Gothic frame that was there.”

Silver, who watched on as the oak roof frames he crafted were lifted into position by a large crane earlier this year, said the U.S. has “a built tradition that’s much newer, but that is derived from these European methods.”

“So for someone like me, being able to work on this building, which is the birth of this technique, is particularly meaningful,” he said.

“Did you ever think you’d be able to look at Notre Dame and say, ‘I built that?’”

Keir Simmons and Laura Saravia reported from Paris. Henry Austin reported from London.