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Lincoln man helps rebuild Notre Dame cathedral

A WOODEN TRUSS constructed by Lincoln’s Will Wallace-Gusakov and other carpenters is flown on to the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral. Wallace-Gusakov and a team of woodworkers last year rebuilt several trusses for the cathedral’s nave roof frame, which was destroyed by a fire in 2019. Photo courtesy of Will Wallace-Gusakov

LINCOLN — Will Wallace-Gusakov is well-versed in the art of timber framing. The 40-year-old carpenter has spent much of his life designing, building and restoring wooden structures in and outside of Vermont. 

Recently, the seasoned woodworker has found himself newly inspired after completing a once-in-a-lifetime project.  

For six months in 2023, Wallace-Gusakov was in France helping rebuild the 700-year-old Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral, which was severely damaged by a fire in 2019. 

The experience allowed Wallace-Gusakov to practice traditional woodworking techniques and has given him a fresh perspective with which to approach future projects.  

“It’s still kind of happening, it’s still in process,” he said of how the trip has inspired his work. “I would love to somehow get a call to build a medieval, French-style timber frame in Vermont or in the U.S. So far that hasn’t happened, but the kind of design and technical genre that I was working on is certainly influencing some of my design ideas and where those are going.” 

Working on Notre-Dame was not the first time Wallace-Gusakov has helped tackle a restoration project abroad. He previously worked in France around a decade ago and has remained connected to many of the friends and colleagues he met during his time there. 

 Those connections led him to join Charpentiers sans Frontières, or Carpenters Without Borders, an international nonprofit that volunteers its expertise in traditional woodworking to restoration projects throughout the globe. 

His ties to Carpenters Without Borders are also what led him to return to France last year. Wallace-Gusakov said following the 2019 fire, he and other carpenters within the group became active in public discourse about how the cathedral would be rebuilt. 

Notre-Dame, constructed in the 12th and 13th centuries, is a treasured example of medieval Gothic architecture. The oak timbers making up the cathedral’s roof frame, fondly known as “the forest,” had stood for upwards of 800 years prior to being engulfed by the 2019 blaze. 

LINCOLN CARPENTER WILL Wallace-Gusakov uses a broadaxe to hand-hew an oak beam for the Notre Dame cathedral’s nave roof frame. The same technique would have been used by the medieval carpenters who constructed the original frame nearly 800 years ago.
Photo courtesy of Will Wallace-Gusakov

“In the weeks and months following the fire, there was this public narrative that was being promulgated that there wasn’t the trees and the know-how, and that it would be impossible to rebuild the cathedral as it had been rebuilt, which was false,” he explained.

Wallace-Gusakov said that in the midst of that debate a group of traditional timber frame carpenters, largely from France, banded together to construct a full-scale wooden truss with the same materials and techniques medieval carpenters would have used. They aimed to sway public opinion and French officials toward rebuilding Notre-Dame using traditional methods, and they proved to be successful. 

In fact, the decision was made to even have timbers for the reconstruction project hand-hewn from a log into a beam using ax or chisel. 

“That’s a really huge deal in France; no significant public building has had that as part of its back anytime in recent memory,” Wallace-Gusakov said. 

The decision to reconstruct the cathedral using traditional methods enabled some of Wallace-Gusakov’s friends from Carpenters Without Borders to submit a bid for a part of the project. 

“Their company in France (Ateliers Desmonts) applied for and got the contract to rebuild the nave and choir roof timber frames in the traditional manner,” Wallace-Gusakov recalled. “They called and asked if I would be interested in participating even while they were responding to the bid request, and I said ‘Yes, I would be really happy to if it could all work out.’ Lo and behold, it did.” 

WORK IN FRANCE 

In France, Wallace-Gusakov joined a crew of around 20 carpenters tasked with recreating the cathedral’s nave roof frame. The oak structure consists of 57 trusses and is roughly 125 feet long, by 45 feet wide, by 35 feet tall. 

“This is basically the triangular roof structure that sits at the very top of the cathedral’s stone walls and creates the roof supports, the roof boards and roofing material itself,” Wallace-Gusakov explained. 

When he arrived in January of 2023, the Lincoln builder’s work on the project largely consisted of hewing logs transported to the crew’s workshop in Normandy, France, from forests throughout the country. 

Wallace-Gusakov and other crew members used broadaxes to turn the logs into beams for the project. 

During the latter three months of his trip, Wallace-Gusakov led construction of the principal trusses for the cathedral’s nave. 

“I was doing a lot of laying up different timbers and mapping their intersections with one another in and cutting that joinery and assembling them,” he said of the process. 

TWO WOODEN TRUSSES destined for the Notre Dame cathedral.
Photo courtesy of Will Wallace-Gusakov

Wallace-Gusakov said the crew used over 1,000 oak timbers to complete the nave roof frame, which was test-fitted at the workshop in Normandy before being disassembled and shipped to the cathedral on an island in the Seine River in the heart of Paris. 

A NEAR CARBON COPY

For the project, Wallace-Gusakov was able to lean on many of the traditional woodworking skills he’s acquired over the years and uses regularly at Goosewing Timberworks, the carpentry business he runs in Lincoln. 

Still, he noted the monumental effort presented certain challenges, such as the complexities of reconstructing a near carbon copy of a centuries-old structure. 

“I didn’t know until I got over there the extent to which we were creating as exact as possible a replica of the relatively idiosyncratic medieval frame that had been,” Wallace-Gusakov said. 

Each of the 57 trusses the crew created were unique and required the team to recreate particularities based on historical documents and other reference material. Additionally, the crew had to account for the fact that the stone walls the nave roof frame would rest on are not perfectly straight or level.  

“Our frame needed to be really precisely mapped to the actualities of the site, which meant that nothing was straight plumb or level,” Wallace-Gusakov said. “That added a huge amount of complexity and difficulty to what we were doing, and it was quite a challenge.”  

Still, the timber framer noted that he’s always up for a challenge and is grateful for the opportunity to help restore the iconic structure.  

“I’ve never worked at a scale like this, and I’ve certainly never worked on a project that was so important, and inspiring, and full of energy in every direction,” Wallace-Gusakov said. “It was very clear over and over again that we were part of an extraordinary project.” 

Later this year, Notre-Dame visitors will get a chance to see the work of Wallace-Gusakov and the around 1,000 other craftspeople who have helped restore the cathedral. The historic structure is set to partially reopen to the public in December. 

A MAGICAL TIME 

Looking back on his time in France, Wallace-Gusakov said getting to connect with fellow carpenters and others in the field was among the highlights of his trip. 

WILL WALLACE-GUSAKOV credits the support of his family in enabling him to take on a project helping rebuild the iconic Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris last year. The carpenter was joined by his wife, Emily French, and two young children in France.
Photo courtesy of Will Wallace-Gusakov

He said he and fellow crew members would regularly enjoy an hour-long lunch “à la française” with each other. 

“We all cooked and ate together, which was a pretty sweet thing for our crew,” he said. “Every day, two carpenters would stop work early to cook lunch for everyone and another two would wash dishes afterward in a communal, rotating way. We all had a really good time getting to know one another and sharing in that.” 

The carpenter said he is also thankful to have gotten the opportunity to share the experience with his wife, Emily French,  and two young children, who joined him in France. 

“I really wouldn’t have been able to take part without the support of my wife and family for moving over to France for six months,” Wallace-Gusakov said. “It really enabled me to take part in this, which was so meaningful personally and professionally.” 

Since returning stateside, Wallace-Gusakov has resumed operations at Goosewing Timberworks. He said working on the cathedral has opened his eyes to the range of future projects he and other Vermont woodworkers can take on.

“Just the idea that my colleagues and I back here in Vermont can tackle and perform various types of projects and can work at different scales and at different capacities and in different countries is pretty exciting,” he said. 

Wallace-Gusakov has also spent the past several months sharing photos and details from his work on the cathedral at talks throughout the county. For those interested in learning more about his time in France, Wallace-Gusakov is set to offer another presentation at the Worthen Public Library in South Hero on July 17 at 6:30 p.m. 

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