France on hunt for centuries-old oaks to rebuild spire of Notre Dame

Restoring 96-metre spire, destroyed by fire in 2019, will require up to 1,000 trees between 150 and 200 years old

French experts are combing the country’s forests for centuries-old oaks to rebuild the Notre Dame spire that was destroyed by fire.

The ferocious blaze in April 2019 brought the cathedral’s 96-metre (315ft) lead and wood spire, a landmark of the Paris skyline, crashing on to the stone roof-vaults.

Immediately afterwards, Emmanuel Macron said the 850-year-old cathedral would be rebuilt by 2024, but there were questions over whether the spire, added in 1859 by the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, would be reproduced with a “contemporary gesture” as the president had hinted.

Last July, Macron announced the spire would be reconstructed exactly as it was. This is expected to require up to 1,000 oaks aged between 150 and 200 years old. The trees must be straight, 50-90cm (20-36in) in diameter and between 8 and 14 metres tall. They must be chopped down by the end of March before the sap rises, otherwise the wood will be too humid. Before being cut into beams, the trunks will be allowed to dry for up to 18 months.

Dominique de Villebonne, the deputy director of the National Forests Office (ONF) told Le Parisien: “This is about ancient forestry heritage, not 20-year-old trees, but those that are very old, including plantations ordered by former kings to build ships and ensure the grandeur of the French fleet.”

She added: “At the same time as leaving other trees to stand for a long time, we are also planting new ones so future generations can create their own exceptional works.”

A number of private forest owners have offered to donate trees to the reconstruction project. “It will be a matter of pride if some of our trees are used for Notre Dame,” said Jean-Paul Mével, who owns a 250-hectare (620-acre) forest in Brittany. “It also shows how our forests are well maintained and are an asset for the country.”

Philippe Gourmain, of the forestry professionals group France Bois Forêt, who is coordinating the search for suitable oaks, said: “We will be using a little of France’s history to remake this historic wooden structure.”

Flames and smoke billow from the cathedral roof in April 2019.
Flames and smoke billow from the cathedral roof in April 2019. Photograph: Chesnot/Getty Images

Work to restore the cathedral is not expected to begin until the beginning of 2022. Carpentry experts say rebuilding Notre Dame as it was will take 2,000 cubic metres of wood, requiring about 1,500 oaks to be cut down. The cathedral’s roof contained so many wooden beams it was called la forêt (the forest). The roof’s support included 25 triangular structures 10 metres high and 14 metres across at the base, placed over the stone vaults of the nave.

Since 2019, work has concentrated on stabilising the structure and removing the scaffolding around the spire – which was undergoing renovation at the time of the fire – that collapsed and fused on to the stone structure below.


Kim Willsher in Paris

The GuardianTramp

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