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Reconstructing Notre-Dame: An Interview with Preservation Carpenter Michael Burrey

May 23, 2024

In April 2019, onlookers watched in horror as Notre-Dame Cathedral was engulfed in flames. Firefighters saved the main structure and bell towers, but the cathedral’s iconic spire was destroyed. Historic New England’s Omri Nassau talks to North Bennet Street School’s Michael Burrey, one of only nine Americans invited to work alongside French carpenters as they reconstruct one of the most recognizable buildings in the world. 

Omri Nassau: Michael is my former instructor at North Bennet Street School. He is a preservation carpentry instructor, timber framer, craftsman, and preservationist. Michael, how did you become involved with the work at Notre Dame?

Michael Burrey: Well, my work at Notre-Dame has a bit of an evolution from about twenty years ago, when I started working with Rick and Laura Brown from Handshouse Studio in Norwell, Massachusetts. When I first met them, they were reproducing an eighteenth-century crane that was used to build stone bridges in Paris. When Notre-Dame burned, everyone was shocked by it. Rick and Laura started getting phone calls saying they should get involved in some way in restoring the roof. They started making phone calls, and being Rick and Laura Brown, they managed to get in touch with the architects who were responsible for reproducing the trusses. 

And then they got you involved in rebuilding a truss in Washington, D.C. in 2021, as kind of a goodwill gesture. What was the idea behind that?

What their real goal was, was to build a truss and donate it to the French. So we built one at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. We took thirty white oak logs, hewed them, and fashioned them into Truss #6, which was above the choir in Notre-Dame. I brought my students and we joined with thirty-five or so other timber framers and built those trusses. Then we took it down to the Washington Mall and raised it there, and then took it down and put it up in the American Building Museum. It was done in solidarity with the French, to basically say that there’s Americans here who can help in the effort of restoring the trusses in the spire of Notre-Dame. The principal architects responsible for restoring the roof and the spire came over to Catholic University to give a lecture. They came up to see the truss and were very impressed with what we could do. 

Through that, you were invited to France to join the reconstruction efforts for three months in 2023. What part of the cathedral were you working on?

The work we did was on the spire. The spire was designed by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc between 1840 and 1860. It was a bigger spire, more proportional with the building than the previous spire [built in the 13th century and removed in the 18th century]. We worked on the carved elements—the quatrefoils, trefoils, dormers, railings, all the decorative elements you see on the cathedral.

You and another American carpenter worked in a French carpentry shop, Asselin, one of the companies chosen to work on the restoration. How was the work organized and who were you working with and how did you cooperate and communicate with the other tradespeople?

There were probably three carpenters in the Asselin shop who knew English well enough to translate and communicate with us, so they put us with one of those carpenters initially. And as we got more and more comfortable with the shop, their simple English and our simple French would get through. We also communicated by hand signals and gestures. We integrated pretty well with it, but it took a little bit of time.

Were there specific guidelines or restrictions based on historical precedent that you had to follow?

The directive was to make it as accurate as possible to the original trusses and spire. And since the spire was done with machine tools from the 1840s to the 1860s, a lot of what we did used a more modern version of those same tools. It’s a reproduction, but basically the outside form is correct. Viollet-Le-Duc did have a whole set of drawings, but there’s no details on it, I think because at the time, all architects had to do was come up with an overall concept and pass it over to the carpenters and the carpenters knew how to execute that that drawing.

You told me that you used a lot of machine tools, but you also took your broadaxe over there?

Yeah, I brought a broadaxe just to have it. My broadaxe and my felling ax both came out of France. There was a fellow from Connecticut, he went over to France after World War II and purchased excess inventory, mostly blacksmithing tools, but also some woodworking tools. So these were French axes that were built or made just before World War II, but they’re very similar to medieval axes in terms of shape and size. I didn’t think I was going to be able to use them, but I brought them along just to have them return to France for a little bit. And I did end up doing a little bit of hewing with the broadaxe.

What was the reaction from the French carpenters when you broke out your broadaxe? 

Well, one laughed and smiled and said, “I appreciate this.” And he photographed and videoed me for a little bit. So that was one of my successes in France, to be able to fit in.

What lessons did you bring back to your students and to the trades and preservation community here in New England?

When you came into the shop—it didn’t matter what time, if you were out on the job site for the first part of the morning and didn’t get there till two o’clock in the afternoon—you would go around to every single person in that shop and shake their hands and say bonjour. It was a fantastic way to be connected to a group. . . just a smile and bonjour, bonjour. It makes you set aside differences you might have had with a person the day before or whatever, because you look them in the eye and you shake their hand and say bonjour. When I came back, I did that with my own crew, and it works. It’s nice.

Michael Burrey is the second-year instructor for the North Bennet Street School Preservation Carpentry Program and the owner of MLB Restorations. He specializes in timber-frame joinery and has researched and re-created seventeenth-century methods of roof thatching, interior walls, and paint finishes. 

Omri Nassau is Preservation Carpentry Supervisor on Historic New England’s Property Care Team.