A Gothic Art Project
Don has been working on this project since 1985. A long, slow germination process was followed, after retirement in 1992, with designing the Edifice and then carving stones in his backyard shed at his home near Paris. As the rocks began to pile up he asked a friend who had a large barn just south of Paris to store his completed stones until the moment came to assemble them - in 2008.
When about 80% of the stones had been carved Don set out to find a piece of property to build on. He finally settled on a place in Burgundy, miraculously obtained permission to build his architectural fantasy, and went to work. The property had a single room house that was built in the mid-1800s, which would be convenient to live in while he worked on his project.
The adjoining field was the right size to build his 13th century Edifice on and late in the summer of 2008 an excavator dug a 4m-deep hole for the foundations and scooped out access roads as well. The foundation seemed to take forever, occupying two years, and entailing a lot of work, which didn’t really show.
Because working on the Edifice exposed during the winter was not possible, and since Don needed to be active the year around in order to finish by the time he turns 90, we had to build a large shelter that would cover most of the worksite.
During the early part of the project every time Don made a trip from Paris to Burgundy he would bring a load of carved rocks from his friend's barn to store in his barn. In doing so Don was able sort out the stones he would need to build the basement.
During the following winter of 2009, Don, and his son Sam, were busy making the wooden arch supports that would hold up the carved stone arches while they were being set in mortar. This turned out to be quite the production job because there were so many to make. The best way to make them was to set up an assembly line and cut all the pieces of one type then move on to the next sort.
Before assembling and painting the arch supports, it was necessary to build the workshop and the stone carving shop. With such a large project there were stones that needed adjusting and still a considerable amount to be made. A ten year project had to have appropriate working facilities.
Because the Edifice uses 13th century building technology only hydrated lime or "slacked lime" was used as the mortar. Unlike cement, slacked lime is very susceptible to freezing before it sets, which takes months. In consequence, a short construction season results.
Since a tunnel between the house and the Edifice was desired, and since it was not really part of the Edifice, cement blocks and mortar were used, permitting construction in early spring and late fall. An excavator dug a long, 2.5m-deep ditch that became the tunnel. A concrete base was poured and reinforced cinder block walls erected. An arched concrete roof, covered by a concealing footpath, finished this project.
When winter was truly behind us the foundations were capped with extra-hard stone to act as a humidity barrier and the bottom stones of the arches were set on them. Then a platform strong enough to hold up the tons of stone that would be placed on top of the arch supports was build. Afterwards the wooden arch supports were mounted and the carved arch stones carefully placed with wedges to leave a gap for the mortar. In between the arch supports a reinforced plywood floor was fitted to hold up the granite ceiling rocks.
As things progressed, the 45cm (1.5 ft) thick granite walls started to go up along with the tower. There was a certain sense of satisfaction when the limestone arches and doors began to populate the worksite. When the wooden arch supports were removed, exposing the vaulted ceilings of the cellar, there was a tremendous sense that it was going to be quite feasible to complete the basement by 2020.
Born in the U.S.A. I came to France in 1956, accompanied by my wife and two very small children. After completing a Master’s degree at the University of California at Berkeley, my aim was to pursue a Doctorate in Paris, but, almost inadvertently, I came to stay.
The region where Gothic architecture was initiated and developed was the Île de France. Since this was where I lived, it seemed normal that I acquire an interest in the 13th and 14th century marvels that surrounded me. In 1985 I began following courses on this subject at the Sorbonne, a fascinating hobby that continued for 15 years. By nature given to research (I was employed at the Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris for 35 years, doing research in the paléontologie of primitive mammals) I of course supplemented the Sorbonne courses by profiting from the enormous bibliographic resources that Paris offers to increase my knowledge.
After my retirement in 1992 I was able to devote all my time to a project to build a small edifice in a pure 13th century style. The Gothic of this period, in my opinion, constitutes an architecture of unrivaled beauty. During 1993 I made plans and drawings for this edifice (it is called an edifice for lack of something better: it’s not a house, nor a castle, nor a church). To transfer these ideas into reality, I began carving the wonderful limestone that constitutes much of the old, historical buildings of Paris. To do this, I hastily constructed a shelter in the backyard of my suburban home. In 1994 I finished the stone door jambs of a first doorway. By 2007 I considered that I had carved about 80% of the stones that were necessary for the windows and doors. My rather advanced age convinced me that it was now or never. After a discouragingly long search I found a property that was sufficiently large, and, moreover, was situated near the house of my son, in the Morvan natural park of Burgundy. Authorization to build such an architectural fantasy was obviously not easy to obtain, but the broad-mindedness of several responsible authorities greatly facilitated the task.
An enormous hole in the slope of the field by my (new) house was dug in 2008. Nearly two years were required to complete the foundations. Then, finally, the edifice began to rise above ground level. At the end of 2012 the wooden vault supports were removed from most of the basement rooms. A valid (and rather spectacular) idea was thus provided of what we had engaged upon and that it was really possible.
But the best is still to come!