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An exact replica of Notre Dame cathedral's spire will be rebuilt starting this summer

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire four years ago, one of the most shocking moments was the collapse of its spire in flames. There was initial talk of holding a competition to design a brand-new spire for Notre Dame, but as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, it will be rebuilt exactly as it used to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMER CLINKING)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: In a vast warehouse in eastern France, dozens of carpenters work on Notre Dame's new spire, being crafted from 2,500 oak trees from across France. Four architecture firms that are usually stiff competitors joined together to replicate the 19th-century spire designed by architect Eugene Viollet-le-Duc and considered a work of beauty and genius.

ERIK VAN BERKEL: Yeah, absolutely. I feel a little bit proud, I will say.

BEARDSLEY: Erik Van Berkel is one of the craftsmen recreating the spire.

VAN BERKEL: But mostly, I'm really grateful for this opportunity because it's just amazing and really exceptional, and it's a kind of work once in a lifetime, so...

(SOUNDBITE OF SAWMILL BUZZING)

BEARDSLEY: Massive logs are being milled for the spire. The original was built in 1859, following a 20-year restoration of the cathedral carried out by Viollet-le-Duc.

BENJAMIN MOUTON: The spire was a masterpiece of carpentry, something very, very few examples in the world was possible to see.

BEARDSLEY: That's Benjamin Mouton, former chief architect and custodian of Notre Dame. He says at first the intricate wooden tower was controversial, but soon it and other 19th-century additions like the gargoyles came to represent not only the cathedral but the spirit and identity of Paris and of France.

MOUTON: If we don't rebuild it as it was, we would break down the unity - architectural unity of the monument. And this is a part of authenticity, spiritual authenticity of the cathedral.

BEARDSLEY: When Notre Dame's spire collapsed on the night of April 15, 2019, it left a gaping hole in the cathedral's roof at the crossing of the nave and transept.

(SOUNDBITE OF HAMMER CLINKING)

BEARDSLEY: The first step to rebuilding it was to erect the spire's base, known as the tabouret, which supports its 500-ton weight. The tabouret has just been completed and assembled with the help of a crane, something Viollet-le-Duc never had, over the hole in Notre Dame's vaulted ceiling. Retired Army General Jean-Louis Georgelin is in charge of Notre Dame's restoration. He says getting the cathedral ready to reopen by December 2024 is a massive undertaking, but resurrecting the spire is perhaps the most symbolic part.

JEAN-LOUIS GEORGELIN: The symbol of the fire was a crash of the spire, and people will be confident in the reopening of the cathedral when will we see again the spire of a cathedral in the sky of Paris.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Parisians and tourists gather to watch Notre Dame being restored. The cathedral is covered in scaffolding, and its famous flying buttresses are buttressed by wooden beams with giant screws. Parisian Pascal Ianko lives nearby. The 66-year-old says he's elated they're putting back Viollet-le-Duc's original masterpiece.

PASCAL IANKO: The spire is a wonder. Each time I walked in front of the cathedral before the fire, I watched the profile of the cathedral, and I thought it was as beautiful as Brigitte Bardot. I was a big fan of her when I was a kid, you know? And I think the spire goes to this cathedral like my hand in my glove, you know?

BEARDSLEY: Notre Dame's spire will soon begin to rise into the Paris sky. It is set to be completed this December, a year before the cathedral opens. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "SUPERSTARR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.