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From New England to Notre-Dame, a U.S. Carpenter Tends to a French Icon

WorldFrom New England to Notre-Dame, a U.S. Carpenter Tends to a French Icon

Notre-Dame Cathedral sat in the pre-dawn chill like a spaceship docked in the heart of Paris, its exoskeleton of scaffolding lit by bright lights. Pink clouds appeared to the east as machinery hummed to life and workers started clambering around.

One of them, Hank Silver, wearing a yellow hard hat, stood on a platform above the Seine River and attached cables to oak trusses shaped like massive wooden triangles. A crane hoisted them onto the nave of the cathedral, which was devastated by fire in 2019.

Mr. Silver — a 41-year-old American-Canadian carpenter — is something of an unlikely candidate to work on the restoration of an 860-year-old Gothic monument and Catholic landmark in France. Born in New York City into an observant Jewish family, he owns a small timber framing business in rural New England and admits that until recently he didn’t even know what a nave was.

But there is nowhere else Mr. Silver would rather be.

For the tight-knit international community of traditional carpenters and woodworking specialists, the loss of Notre-Dame’s ancient lattice of oak beams was a tragedy. It also has given them a way to show the world that their manual tools and techniques have stood the test of time.

“Nobody builds cathedrals anymore,” at least like this, Mr. Silver said recently over lunch, flipping through pictures of Notre-Dame on his phone and describing the camaraderie shared by the nearly 500 journeymen, craftsmen and supervisors who work at the site. The opportunity to work on a project like this, he added, is “once in a millennium.”

“It has elevated all of the artisans in France and in the world,” he said. “How many kids staring at their iPads are even aware that they can grow up to be a stonecutter, a traditional carpenter, a mason?”

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