A year ago, Juan Soto, a student in Catholic University’s School of Architecture and Planning, helped construct a full-size replica of “Truss No. 6,” one of the massive wood roof supports that was destroyed when an April 2019 fire ravaged the iconic Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral. The truss was built using 800-year-old construction methods.
He also learned about the architecture and building methods of the French Gothic church in classes in the School of Architecture and Planning, medieval timber framing techniques, and other aspects of the Cathedral construction, and he and his classmates built scale models that included several key architectural elements.
Now the architecture students would not only meet the chief architects overseeing the restoration of that iconic structure, but they would have the opportunity to discuss the Cathedral and have their work critiqued by these international experts.
“The fire in 2019 really opened everyone’s eyes to how elaborate and how detailed construction of architecture from natural history can be. This historic icon landmark of Notre-Dame is something very special for everyone as it's a design feat in its own. It’s a very detailed and really large architecture project that has withstood the test of time, over 800-plus years, and I think it's really important for everyone to learn about how these people came together to construct this cathedral and bring that back,” Soto said.
He added that the day was “an amazing opportunity to meet them [the architects]. I think it’s incredible to have this opportunity here at Catholic University, and being able to talk to them and to get their insight, their input on Notre-Dame.”
The visit almost didn’t happen after a canceled flight from Paris delayed the architects’ arrival in Washington, D.C., by a day, but Philippe Villeneuve and Rémi Fromont wanted to see the replica truss — part of the Handshouse Studio Notre-Dame de Paris Truss Project — and headed to the campus before giving their first public lecture in the U.S. at the National Building Museum. Catholic University was their first stop in the United States.
Expressing “delight” at seeing the truss — a replica of what had been lost to the fire — the two architects huddled with the volunteer workers to compare notes and discuss the construction. Villeneuve and Fromont then headed to Crough Center to visit with Soto and the other students. Of particular interest were the scale models and replicas students had made of simple, but important elements from the Cathedral’s construction.
Tonya Ohnstad, assistant professor of architecture who, with University support, invited the architects to visit Catholic University, said, “We are interested in the material lives of buildings. By looking at a humble, repeatable component in our most beloved buildings we can reveal complex cultural conditions, innovative responsive technologies, and are poised to transfer intangible heritage over generations.”
The architects decided to return to Catholic University after their talk, examining the truss and talking with volunteer builders, including Abigail Sekely, B.A. 2020, late into the night.
Earlier in the day, following a prayer offered by Rockville Centre Bishop John Barres, a member of the University’s Board of Trustees, the large timber truss, built on campus in 2021, was raised. Catholic University students, two University Trustees, and Trevor Resurreccion, B.A. 2001, who helped fund the truss raising, joined Handshouse Studio and other volunteers in grabbing the ropes and pulling the 35-foot by 45-foot truss upright.
Resurreccion said there is "no more fitting place than Catholic University" to support a project of such significance where students have an opportunity to experience how religion, art, history, and human ingenuity can all intertwine. "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity for students.”
After the truss was raised, a worker climbed the structure to place a “whetting bush” (evergreen) at the top, in a centuries-old tradition. The gesture acknowledges the labor of the workers and thanks the forest for the gift of the trees, a speaker noted.
Dr. Peter Kilpatrick, President of Catholic University, said, “One of the most exciting things about what we did today was to bring together many different threads of what is so important to our University: the integration of the disciplines. Bringing together history and architecture and art and our faith and world culture in one project really illustrates that important element of our mission as a University, and that is to integrate the disciplines.
Before heading over to the Crough Center for a panel discussion, Marie Brown, director of Handshouse Studio, thanked the helpers assembled on University Lawn “for coming together to make this gesture of raising this truss here today, in community, by hand in celebration of cultural heritage and the importance of curiosity, connection, and community.”