TFG Blog

Guild Member reflections on the Notre Dame Fire

As we continue to process yesterday's devastating loss of a global landmark we reflect on the voices of the Timber Framers Guild community who surely feel this loss in a way unique from those without a passion for this craft we all love. Please send your reflections to

 “Words are so hard to come by at a time like this. Seeing photos with flames shooting through the roof of a sacred structure like Notre Dame is difficult to watch. I feel truly blessed to have had the opportunity to spend time in Paris, visit Notre Dame, go to a service there, climb the steps, and take in the magnificence of such an incredible building. It is truly an anchor of the city and has been a refuge of peace for Catholics, the French people, architecture fans, art lovers, theologians, and history buffs around the world.

Each beam in the timber frame of Notre Dame was made of a single tree. Over 52 acres– 1,300 trees  - were felled for its construction.  There is no way to measure what has been lost. But we can take some level of comfort that a portion of the structure has been saved and that a commitment to rebuild has been made by the people of France and around the world.”

Brenda Baker, Board President, Timber Framers Guild

 “I’m mostly dumbstruck by what's happened and for the moment can’t get past the mystery and injustice of how the roof of France’s most cherished national and spiritual monument could lie so unprotected against accident. I have walked past that building probably a hundred times and around it scores more and never failed to be affected by its soaring presence, its intricacy, its beauty, its meanings.  The only just response is to build it anew so that new meanings might accrue to it and for us specifically to help those who will do so with whatever they ask of us.” 

Ken Rower, Editor Emeritus, Timber Framing

"In the lore of the traditional French carpenters guild, the compagnon charpentiers, Notre Dame is a sacred structure. For a timber-frame carpenter with a particular interest in historical French carpentry, this is a difficult situation. I have been deep in correspondence with my colleagues in the hours since news of the fire. Here are my initial reactions:

I am glad to have spent some time around the cathedral while visiting Paris last October at the end of a tour of French carpentry museums, and I have good reason to be hopeful about the future of this building. The fire is a catastrophe, but the skills and passion to rebuild this structure are present in the compagnon craftspeople of France like in no other western country. The traditional knowledge that originally built this monument is still alive. The Compagnons du Devoir actively transmit this knowledge to young people through intensive, long-term apprenticeships, setting a high standard against which to measure any vocational training.

There is hardly a more well-documented building anywhere in the world, and traditional craft knowledge can fill the gaps of any architectural survey. It’s easy to lose sight of history, including architectural history, as an evolving process. While some parts of Notre Dame are over 800 years old, and built upon prior ruins, its famed spire was designed by Viollet le Duc and completed in 1859, over 30 years after Victor Hugo wrote The Hunchback. At least one of the massive rose windows was replaced in the 1960’s. Maintenance is a necessary and continuous process tying the past to the present, ensuring a future for history, as the massive scaffold enveloping much of the cathedral recently attests.

Shinto shrines in Japan are entirely rebuilt on a regular schedule, the Ise Grand Shrine every twenty years, 62 times. This is a radically different approach to maintenance than we are accustomed to here in the US or Europe, its critical function to train subsequent generations of craftspeople. The longevity of these shrines rises from the spirit and continuity of their creators and supporters, not from a faith in persistent materiality alone.

A similar spirit brought members of the Timber Framers Guild together with international volunteers to create a replica of the Gwoździec synagogue in 2011. This structure now represents the lost wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto.

French culture, with the compagnons at the ready, is uniquely prepared to deal with the fire at Notre Dame, and to benefit from the audacity of its grand scale. Smaller reconstruction projects are always underway throughout the country, even to the extent of Guédelon, an experimental archaeology project to create a new 13th-century chateau.

One of my greatest worries at the moment is that any efforts to rebuild the lost structure might be hampered by requirements to use modern materials, in a well-meaning but mistaken attempt to improve upon the original. I don’t think the original can be improved upon, and its soul would be lost in the attempt. Additionally, no modern materials have proven as durable as the original stone, wood, and lead, each of which can be maintained and repaired indefinitely. Buildings must inspire care to long persist, something no technology can replace. Far better for any reconstruction to be carried out in the full spirit of the original work, by committed craftspeople setting their efforts in search of the ineffable."

Adam Miller, Co-Editor, Timber Framing

"I sit here this evening, trying to make sense of the news from France.  It would appear in this late hour that all is clearly not lost.  The stone vaults seem to have held, the towers and walls still stand, yet more will be revealed by the morning light.  It is easy in times of tragedy and crisis such as this to allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the news, the enormity of the situation.  And indeed, no one is arguing the enormity of the fact that the entire wooden roof structure of Notre Dame du Paris has been lost.  Yet in this moment of sadness, we must begin to think about the road ahead.  Clearly it will be rebuilt, and within France, the Compagnon is strong, much stronger than many would believe.  I firmly believe that this moment will be their “finest hour”, to borrow from Churchill.  

And yet, when it comes to the restoration of that noble forest, that was the roof of Notre Dame, we are companions of that same craft.  This Guild has helped revive a lost building tradition, this Guild has drawn people together from across the globe.  Tonight I write not only as a member of the Guild, and TTRAG, or the Past President of the Preservation Trades Network, tonight I am driven to write as an American.  America has long shared a unique relationship with France.  It was French help which furthered our efforts to become a free nation.  It was from France that we received that most iconic of statues to welcome people to our New World, the Statue of Liberty.  As an American, I feel a strong urge to lend a hand to our friends in France, for it is the right thing to do.

In the midst of tragedy, we can also see opportunity, a chance to grow and learn.  In Charleston South Carolina, following the tragic destruction of Hurricane Hugo, a need was discovered to rebuild, and yet there were few tradespeople to rebuild the city in the old ways.  And, so a trade school was created, which became the American College of the Building Arts.  And over two decades later, that school is accredited, and is teaching people traditional trades.  Therefore, let us, as both a Guild and a Culture see this tragedy as a clarion call for the furtherance of the traditional trades.  Let us gather together in support of our fellow tradespeople from the Compagnon, and others from around the world to help rebuild this structure which belongs not to one country, but the world.  And when we do so, let us do it we these words from Ruskin in our mind, which he wrote in 1849, before the last restoration of Notre Dame."

“Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build forever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, "See! this our fathers did for us." For, indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, or in its gold. Its glory is in its Age.” 
― John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture

Ian Stewart, TTRAG member, Past President of the Preservation Trades Network

Turn off the water, let all the gardens go to seed
Bring the children home from school
Call the nuns from prayer
The cathedral is burning

I am not Catholic, but I would go en masse to lay a skilled hand on those bones and expect to know the resurrection. 

We have collected our sorrows before, in tragedy. For princesses, for terror, for unspeakables we cannot repair. This is a child’s cry, comfort-able.

The oaks are grown, let’s go meet them. 

I care less about one building, than humanity building.
Our cathedral is burning, and apparently so am I

Adrian Jones, TFG Member

Click on a photo to enlarge.

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Posted Apr 16, 2019 1:38 PM PST. Edited on Apr 16, 2019 1:40

Apr 17, 2019 7:36 AM
I think an important note as we grieve over the damage to an icon, is that we are grieving over the building, not the people. This old timber roof did its duty even in a fire. It held up long past the time it took for people to notice and get out. It is one of the strengths of wood and should be a reminder for those who would choose a more modern material, this mighty wooden roof even in flames protected the people it was intended to protect.
The building will be rebuilt and we can still maintain the connection to the past, secure in the knowledge that this old building has proved the value of its craft. Serving the purpose for which it was built: beauty and strength to uplift and protect.

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