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5 years after fire ravaged Notre Dame, an American carpenter is helping rebuild Paris' iconic cathedral

American helps with Notre Dame restoration
American carpenter helps with restoration of France's Notre Dame 02:49

Paris — Five years have passed since Notre Dame cathedral in Paris was engulfed in flames. The iconic spire and timber roof were destroyed in the blaze. People around the world were shocked at the scale of the fire and the damage it caused, but work to restore the iconic landmark to its former glory continues. 

Among those involved in the monumental project is an American carpenter who was given a rare chance to take part in this historic restoration project. In 2023, Hank Silver was running a small carpentry business in Massachusetts. Through a carpentry contact in France, he was asked if he wanted to join a team in Normandy preparing timber to rebuild the nave of Notre Dame.

"I could not say 'no' to that opportunity," Silver told CBS News. "It's an opportunity that happens — once in a lifetime wouldn't even be the right term, it's once in a millennium, really."

Hank Silver, a carpenter from Massachusetts, works on roof trusses for the nave of Paris' Notre Dame cathedral. Courtesy of Hank Silver

The 41-year-old shut up shop and headed to western France to join the Atelier Desmonts carpentry team. All of the laborers are skilled in traditional building methods.

"In our shop in Normandy, we received about 600 oak logs, and it was all freshly cut oak, which is as it was done traditionally. You work with green wood, unseasoned wood, which is what I'm accustomed to doing in the U.S. as well," Silver said. "We first hewed all the logs using axes in order to recreate that rippled finish that you were able to see in the original cathedral in the 13th century framing."

There have been some unexpected challenges for Silver and his colleagues as they work to recreate — precisely — a church that has stood its ground in central Paris for so many centuries. 

Scientists turn to 3D technology to help restore Notre Dame 02:31

"The architects asked us to reproduce all of the deformations that had accrued over 800 years. So, the ridge is not a straight line, and so we had to follow this curvature, and the walls, even though they were rebuilt by the masons, they're not level and straight. And that led to a lot of complexities that the original carpenters in the 13th century never would have dealt with."

Silver is one of a few dozen foreigners who have helped rebuild the cathedral, after artisans from several countries applied to be part of the historic project. The man in charge of the restoration, Philippe Jost, told CBS News that traditional carpenters, in particular, traveled to Paris from around the world for the restoration.

"Many carpenters came from the United States, from England, from Denmark, from Spain, because they were fond of these techniques, fond of oak," Jost said, noting a "spirit of unity" among the artisans. "There is pride and humility," he said, adding that all the workers on the site "have been marked for life."

Hank Silver, a carpenter from Massachusetts, helps to reassemble roof trusses in the nave of Paris' Notre Dame cathedral. Courtesy of Hank Silver

The entire nave was raised under a tent in Normandy before being disassembled and then shipped to Paris last August, where Silver was part of a smaller team that reassembled each of the trusses and then installed them in the nave of the cathedral.

Last December, the spire rose again into the Paris skyline, topped with a recreation of the original golden cross and rooster. The rooster holds several holy relics, including what is reputed to be a thorn from the crown of thorns worn by Jesus Christ on the cross. 

The new rooster has something else, though. A second chamber was added, containing a scroll with the names of everybody who worked on the cathedral's restoration — including Hank Silver.

"Isn't that cool?!" he said, clearly pleased with the honor. "It's right up there, protecting the city."

Notre-Dame Cathedral Spire And Rooster Return To The Paris Skyline
The new golden rooster is seen atop the spire between the two towers of Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, Feb. 13, 2024, in Paris, France.  Getty

With his work on the restoration almost done, Silver said he'd like to stay in France. He has a five-year residency permit that allows him to work in the country, but he has his eye on citizenship, and he took advantage of a site visit by the French president to plead his case.

"I did hand Emmanuel Macron a letter requesting French citizenship," he told CBS News. 

"He has not been texting me every day, much to my disappointment. I have not heard back from him," Silver said. 

Macron has promised that Notre Dame will re-open to the public on December 8 this year. But there's still a lot to do. Work to cover the new timber frames of the roof and spire in sheets of metal and lead, as they were before the fire, continues. 

Finishing touches are also being put on the new fire safety measures incorporated in the restoration, to protect the church against any future damage.

The final stages will include placing specially designed furniture, including new chairs, inside the building. Jost said the cathedral would be ready for the re-opening – and says the restoration is not only within the deadline, it is also within budget.Donations have played a big part in financing the massive restoration project. Of the $900 million collected, American donors, big and small, contributed a total of $32 million. "Americans have always been fond of French heritage," says Jost. "I am very grateful; we are all very grateful to American donors."

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