Restoring the National Cathedral: One stone at a time

Story highlights

  • Repair operations are under way at the Washington National Cathedral
  • Some 200 pieces of stone will have to be removed and reset, the head stonemason says
  • Stonemason Joseph Alonso expects complete restoration will take at least 10 years
It took roughly 10 minutes to remove a two-ton portion of a pinnacle from atop the earthquake-damaged Washington National Cathedral on Thursday.
Blinded by the massive building's side extension walls, the crane operator needed stone masons to call out directions as he lifted the tip of the southeastern pinnacle, which looked much like a thimble against the backdrop of the 104-year-old cathedral.
It is the third of the four pinnacles to come down from the more-than 30-story central tower.
The head stonemason for the cathedral, Joseph Alonso, said what lies beneath the top one-third of the pinnacle, known as the finial, is where the stabilization process really begins. Eight large stones, each weighing 800 pounds, shifted during the August 23 earthquake and are expected to be removed by day's end.
"It's phenomenal the amount of damage up there," Alonso said. "In addition to these, some 40 pieces that we're removing from the top, ... we're going to have to end up removing and resetting about 160 other pieces of stone up on that tower."
More scaffolding continues to go up, bracing the smaller pinnacles that were displaced as the energy generated from the 5.8-magnitude quake rose through the solid cathedral walls up to the delicate, ornamental surfaces. The fourth and final pinnacle, o n the northwest corner of the tower, is expected to be removed Friday.
The process of evaluating the damage is itself a challenge, and must happen well before thoughts of repair can begin. As a mason for the cathedral for 26 years, Alonso expects complete restoration will take at least 10 years.
"A gothic cathedral is the worst thing to be involved in an earthquake," he said. The engineers who rappelled the Washington Monument inspecting that structure's damage will do the same at the cathedral next week, he said.
The director of communications for the cathedral, Richard Weinberg, said the priority is to secure the structure by the November 12 consecration of the new bishop of Washington, the Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde. The plan is to reopen the structure to the public the following Sunday.
Last week, an initiative began to raise $25 million for the cathedral's restoration and operations, but final figures on the cost for repairs are still unknown.
Weinberg said he is blown away by the outpouring of financial support, large and small, from people across the country.