Restoring The Forest

“The Forest” is not “the forest” or “a forest.” It is the 800-year old oak framing that supported the roof and spire of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

When this roof burst into flames on April 15, 2019 and crashed to the floor of the church interior, French President Emmanuel Macron vowed to restore it. And after discarding the idea of a modern glass spire, the design team approved a plan to recreate the original, including a 96-meter wooden spire.

Each oak must be about 20 meters of straight timber, DBH 1 meter, yet have a slight curve to fit an overhead curve of 65 feet long for the roof’s framework (its nave and choir). Selected trees are marked with a forestry seal of the state and a small white tag bearing an etching of Notre Dame, much as North American white pine was marked for the Royal navy. The tree’s geolocation in the forest is noted, as well as its intended place in the restoration.

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Where can France find this volume of suitable aged oak? Many will come from forests such the Forest of Villefermoy about 50 miles southeast of Notre Dame, some of whose trees date back to Gallo-Roman times.  Many are over 200 years old, dating to the French Revolution, according to Bertrand Munch, the director general of France’s National Forestry Office. As of April 2021, 1,000 oak trees have been cut from roughly 200 public and private French forests for the reconstruction.

Last year, work on Notre Dame stopped when the pandemic hit France. But the race to cut the selected 1000 trees continued. The trees needed to be harvested before March 2021 so they can be stored to dry for 18 months at low humidity (below 30%) before being sawn into timbers.

It’s slow progress, but the team of engineers, carpenters, and construction workers remains hopeful. “The selection of these first oaks trees is an important step on the road to the rebirth of the cathedral,” said Dominique Jarlier, president of the National Federation of Forestry Municipalities. “It’s part of a huge transformation. This jewel of Gothic architecture is being rebuilt with oak trees from local forests, as 200 construction workers operate on-site every day. The goal, according to French president Emmanuel Macron, is to have the church repaired before the city hosts the 2024 Summer Olympics, which is slated to begin on July 26, 2024, in Paris.

Summed Forester Renaud Trangosi, “The forests are eternal but that’s not the case for the trees. And if they have a second life in Notre Dame forest at the top of the cathedral, so much the better.”

This article drew on reports by the BBC, NPR, and Architectural Digest. Quotes by Dominique Jarlier and Renaud Trangosi were originally in French


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