WTIP speaks with Peter Henrikson about Notre Dame’s timber frame restoration
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WTIP speaks with Peter Henrikson about Notre Dame’s timber frame restoration

Many Grand Marais or Cook County residents have ventured beyond the county lines to influence change or share their knowledge and skill with the larger world. 

And one Grand Marais resident is currently in France doing just that. 

WTIP had an opportunity to connect with Peter Henrikson, a Grand Marais resident, carpenter, and timber frame teacher at North House Folk School to learn more about the tight-knit community of timber framing carpenters who are using their skillful hands and unwavering passion for restoring an iconic architectural landmark, the Notre Dame Cathedral.

A devastating fire engulfed the historic cathedral in April 2019, leaving behind a charred skeleton of a once-grand structure. 

Henrikson said he first learned of the opportunity through Handshouse Studio, a nonprofit organization that creates projects outside the traditional classroom that energizes history by reconstructing large historical objects. 

“It pretty much started almost two years ago,” Henrikson said. 

Following the 2019 fire, Henrikson said timber framers from Handshouse Studio and a France-based organization called Carpenters Without Borders began building a Notre Dame truss by hand using all traditional tools that would have been used in medieval times. Henrikson described it as a demonstration project to show that “we have people with the skills to do this and to redo it as it was originally done.” Henrikson was part of the group of nearly 25 timber framers who gathered in Washington D.C., to build a demonstration model of one of the trusses for Notre Dame by hand. 

Henrikson said there were numerous discussions and proposals to rebuild the trusses using modern technology and tools. However, a significant contingent of people pushed for doing it the way it was done in medieval times. Ultimately the decision was made to hire timber framers to ensure that the finished product would remain true to the original craftsmanship of the cathedral’s original builders. While the finished product was all done by hand, power tools and modern technology were used to cut and haul the trees to expedite the process.  

“There were a few shortcuts made in the hewing process, using sawmills and our tools,” Henrikson said. “But all the finished surface was done with axes.”

The timber framing restoration is not taking place near the cathedral. In fact, the timber framing carpenters are living and working three hours southwest of Paris as they construct the trusses. The carpenters and the other restoration workers face a tight deadline to reopen the cathedral by December 2024. 

The anticipated date to assemble the timbers at Notre Dame Cathedral is this fall, in September. However, Henrikson may not be there to see it. His contract expires at the end of June. “I don’t think logistically, for a lot of different reasons, that I’ll be a part of the raising in Paris, which is a little unfortunate.”

Although Henrikson may not see the finished project atop the Notre Dame Cathedral, he appreciates his time and involvement in the restoration project. 

“It has been a pretty amazing experience, partially because of the scale and the importance of the Notre Dame Cathedral to the people of France,” he said. “I think a lot of people I’ve met here in France are really excited to see the cathedral rebuilt because it does mean a lot to people here.”

In addition, the connections, relationships, and learning opportunities have been incredibly beneficial for Henrikson and his fellow carpenters. 

“So there were a lot of young people who had done some hewing. But they were able to work with people who had more experience and learn from them. And it was just an amazing learning environment,” he said. “Everybody working together.”

WTIP’s Kalli Hawkins spoke with Peter Henrikson about his involvement and experience in the Notre Dame Cathedral restoration. Audio from the interview is below.