By SAMANTHA SMITH, Staff Writer | Published March 31, 2022
ATLANTA—Sitting behind the monumental arches of the Millennium Gate Museum near Atlantic Station is a tall wooden truss exhibit—a tribute to Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.
The exhibit was brought to Atlanta by Handshouse Studio, a Massachusetts organization that gathers together communities, institutions and partners to reconstruct large historical projects.
Handshouse projects are educational opportunities, said Marie Brown, executive director of the nonprofit since 2019.
“By recreating lost historic objects by hand, we’re exploring who made the object, how they made it, why, what materials they used, what tools they were using,” she said. “And in that process, there’s so much learned.”
On April 15, 2019, a fire engulfed Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the most notable Catholic sites in the world. The Gothic cathedral’s spire and most of the roughly 330-foot roof collapsed in the fire.
Reconstruction on the cathedral began that same year, but was halted due to the coronavirus pandemic. It has since resumed and the cathedral is on track to reopen in 2024.
Amid the devastation of the fire, Handshouse Studio began creating a project to educate people about the more than 850-year-old cathedral, and to support its rebuilding.
The nonprofit received official drawings from French lead architects Rémi Fromont and Cédric Trentesaux to take on the challenge of rebuilding truss #6, one of the oldest trusses of the cathedral.
A truss is a group of assembled pieces designed to hold immense weight. Multiple trusses were used to hold up the cathedral’s roof prior to the fire. Truss #6 supported the roof for nearly 800 years.
In summer 2021, traditional timber framers, carpenters, faculty and students from around the U.S. came together for the Handshouse Notre Dame project to build truss #6 in a 10-day workshop at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
The Catholic Foundation of North Georgia supported housing for students helping with the project in D.C. through the Alex and Betty Smith Donor Advised Fund.
“The world was greatly saddened by the fire,” said Nancy Coveny, president of the Georgia Catholic Foundation. “It’s exciting that the Catholic Foundation of North Georgia has a small part in helping its rebuilding.”
To build the truss, Handshouse Studio used French protocol passed down from the Middle Ages for timber harvesting, fabricating, assembly, tools and raising techniques.
The idea behind this project is to celebrate “people who work with their hands,” said Brown. “It’s preservation carpentry …. it’s very powerful, beautiful work and often not understood. This is a gesture of global solidarity with our fellow makers all over the world.”
In addition, Handshouse Studio is organizing a national project inviting colleges, universities, their faculty and students to build a large-scale wooden model of the oldest trusses in the cathedral roof above the choir, the part of the cathedral between the altar and nave used by the choir and clergy. In the summer of 2021, The Catholic University of America offered a course centered on this project to explore the architectural history of Notre Dame through hands-on work called the Model of “La Forêt.”
The truss exhibit was moved from The Catholic University of America to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., before being in the National Museum Building until September 2021. The exhibit was reconstructed in Atlanta on March 7 and will be at the Millennium Gate Museum until April 25. A complimentary exhibit including architectual research from Model of “La Forêt” is inside the museum as well.
The Atlanta exhibit consists of a single upright truss, with the lower timber spanning just shy of 47 feet and each of the rafters being more than 38 feet long. Wooden members of the truss are held together with a combination of mortis, tenons, clavettes and wooden pegs.
A webinar presentation of the Notre Dame truss exhibit, supported by the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts at the University of Georgia, will be April 14, at 4 p.m. Online registration is available.
The exhibit’s closing gala will be Sunday, April 24.
The Statue of Liberty was a gift from the French that is now a major symbol of America, noted Brown. She hopes to give a full-scale truss to the reconstruction efforts in Paris.
“There’s something really powerful about that shared humanity,” she said. “And there needs to be more of that in the world.”