Restoration on High
One year after the unusual East Coast earthquake, Washington National Cathedral staff have completed stabilization of the structure and are ready to begin the long process of rebuilding
When cathedral Mason Foreman Joe Alonso can’t sleep at night, he counts. One, two, courses of broken limestone per intermediate pinnacle. Eight pinnacles. Which makes 16 damaged pieces of stone that need to be replaced on the central tower of the Washington National Cathedral. But this counting just adds to Alonso’s restlessness as he remembers: To get to those 16 broken pieces, he will need to remove a total of 64 pieces of heavy, carved, bonded, unbroken stone on top of them.
And when Alonso goes to work, more numbers: 300 feet tall; 150,000 tons of stone; 83,000 square feet; 517 feet and 8 inches long; sixth-largest Gothic cathedral in the world. He tallies the damage done by the August 2011 earthquake and sees the future construction zone. He wonders where to position the cranes, thinks about how many workers he’ll need. “All these numbers are swirling around my head,” Alonso says.
Washington National Cathedral—formally, the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul—is a building with a history as old as Washington, D.C., itself. Pierre Charles L’Enfant first mentioned “a church for national purposes” as part of his 1791 plan for the nation’s capital. The Right Reverend Henry Yates Satterlee secured an initial 30 acres on Mount Saint Alban—between Georgetown and what is now Tenleytown—in 1898. Workmen laid the first stone in the presence of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1907, and 83 years to the day later, Alonso was on hand to help set the last stone on the southwest tower, kissing the finial after it was in place.
With the eight-decade construction project complete, Alonso turned to maintenance. Since the oldest parts of the building were more than 80 years old, there was much to do: masonry repointing, cleaning water-damaged stones, rebuilding the main organ. But last year, a 5.8-magnitude earthquake rumbled the East Coast from Georgia to Maine, with an epicenter only 85 miles south of the capital. The quake shook Washington and its monuments, and the mass of the sanctuary's stone was such that though the building remained structurally stable, the seismic energy pulsed up to the spires and pinnacles, rattling them like lids on steaming teakettles. In just 20 to 30 seconds the cathedral’s preservation priorities were upended completely. “From 1991 to August 23, 2011, 1:51 p.m., we spent 20 years maintaining and upkeeping,” Alonso says. “And now we’re back to construction.”
In the days after the quake, when he and two cathedral stone carvers, Sean Callahan and Andy Uhl, inspected the topmost portions of the building, Alonso found a stone angel, three of the four grand finials, and fist-sized chunks of rock littering the central tower roof like gravel. “If it had been two to three seconds longer, we would have had 50 percent more damage," he says. "And the pieces that would have fallen would have been significantly larger.”
At 6’5”, Alonso seems too tall to be working on spindly stone spires 300 feet in the air. And as a tour guide, he is gracious and enthusiastic, often stopping to point out such details as recently restored stained glass panels or the collection of Champagne bottles saved by the generations of stone masons before him who uncorked a bottle to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the tower each year during construction. In 1985, when the cathedral needed a mason, Alonso got the job, starting as a journeyman for then master mason Billy Cleland. “This is the ultimate building to be a stonemason for,” Alonso says. “I never thought that as a modern stone mason, I would be building Gothic arches, setting tracery, setting gargoyles.” You can spot Alonso, wearing work boots, jeans, a T-shirt, and a hard hat, in the background of almost every TV special or report about the cathedral.
When I walk into the nave to meet him almost a year after the earthquake, the building’s sheer height draws my eyes upward, and I see netting that stretches almost the whole 457 feet of the nave’s length. Until Alonso and a crew of engineers can build a scaffold near the ceiling to inspect the damage up close, the netting is a precaution. “I know the ceiling like the back of my hand,” Alonso says, looking up. ngineers intend to span the nave with huge beams installed along the ledges beneath the stained-glass windows. Then scaffolding can be built on the beams, allowing the cathedral’s daily activities below to proceed uninterrupted.
As Alonso guides me away from the public areas of the cathedral and into the structure's inner workings, he unlocks and holds open a wrought-iron gate, then a tiny elevator’s doors. Once we’re in the south transept, Alonso walks me through a storage room and into a turret with a spiraling staircase, where he folds quickly through a narrow five-foot door cut into the curved walls before hopping out onto a parapet. He points to multiple levels of scaffolding and ladders, 234 feet above the ground. “Are you feeling brave?” he asks me with a smile.
We shimmy up shaky ladders to a plywood platform that has been built atop a pinnacle at the southwest end of the south transept. It’s a warm, sunny day, and we’re standing at one of the highest points in Washington, D.C. L’Enfant’s realized city is spread out before us, lush and exuberant in its verdant spring clothes. Alonso and I turn from the view and inspect the damage.
Many of the stones look as if God himself had reached down and twisted them several degrees clockwise to the north. Right now, steel cables wrap tightly around the large pinnacle. Eight heavy-duty post-shores provide a total of 80,000 pounds of support capacity. “That math makes me feel better,” Alonso says, even though it’s a mere Band-Aid on a serious wound.
The restoration challenge is that many of the broken column stones are in the middle of the pinnacle, with some 20 tons of unbroken stones on top of them. “It’s not like you can shove this back in place,” Alonso says of one that’s jutting out from the southwest pinnacle like a compound fracture.
Damage to the “Gloria in Excelsis” central tower is no less severe. Here, Alonso shows me where a total of 45 large stones from the four grand pinnacles, each weighing 600 to 800 pounds, had to be removed by crane and relocated to the stonemason’s shop, where Callahan and Uhl are repairing or replicating them. But those are relatively easy fixes. The remaining challenges include the eight smaller, intermediate pinnacles.
The largest cranes available only have 400 feet of boom and were barely able to reach the central tower. To access these intermediate pinnacles, Alonso hopes to install his own crane, as builders did when the central tower was originally constructed. A stationary crane atop the central tower, instead of on the ground, would allow workers to reach all areas of the cathedral.
Like Alonso, Steven Schwab also sees numbers when he looks at the cathedral. The director of external relations and thus head of fundraising, he estimates that the repairs will cost $20 million. That amount needs to be raised in addition to the $30 million already needed for preservation work and the $10 million operating budget which is already raised annually, mostly from individual philanthropists and private foundations. The preservation and restoration funding needs are almost as monumental a challenge as the one to fund the cathedral in the first place.
Before the earthquake, Schwab and other staff had just released the 2012–2014 strategic plan, focusing efforts for the first time on preservation. “No one in the course of 83 years thought about sustaining it,” Schwab says. “So we were preparing to launch a major national fundraising effort to build our endowment”—currently only $62.5 million—“and to start our preexisting funding needs, and then the earth shook.”
The day after the quake, a crew from Universal Builders Supply’s D.C. office started designing a system of 70 tons of steel I-beams to hold the off-kilter parts of the central tower together until repairs could begin. And the D.C. offices of Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates (WJE) and Keast & Hood Co. came in to assess the damage. Technicians from WJE’s Difficult Access Team set ropes and rappelled the cathedral, just as they had rappelled the sheer walls of the Washington Monument, also damaged in the quake. Inside the building, Alonso’s 26 years of working on the cathedral made him the perfect emergency preservationist. “I told the staff, ‘Don’t sweep up the debris.’” He pulled a blueprint of the cathedral floor plan from his files and asked the engineers to record the location of every chip of mortar so that he could pinpoint potential weak spots in the ceiling. Meanwhile he started inspecting the rest of the building, bracing himself for the damage: “I was hoping I didn’t see some crazy diagonal crack.”
The cathedral was closed for two and a half months while money came in for the earthquake restoration effort from around the world. “When the earthquake struck, we had a focused effort straightaway,” says Andrew Hullinger, the cathedral’s senior director for finance and administration. “We raised several million dollars within the first five months.”
Even Westminster Abbey—the cathedral's British counterpart—donated money. As did New Zealand’s ChristChurch Cathedral, grievously damaged in a devastating February 2011 earthquake. A total of $2 million was raised, and $1.7 million of that was spent on scaffolding, cranes, and crews to stabilize the cathedral. “Now that stream has slowed down tremendously,” Hullinger notes. “We’re no longer in the forefront of people’s consciences. Folks who are local drive by and see scaffolding and think, ‘Oh, it’s being repaired.’ But the reality is that the scaffolding was erected to provide access for inspection and repair crews and to facilitate the removal of damaged stonework. It took 83 years to build this place; it may take 10 years to repair it. I don’t know. It will be a function of how quickly we can raise the money.”
To help raise additional funds, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the cathedral a National Treasure early this year, as part of its new program to protect historic places at risk. “Many historic sites don’t have a full-fledged preservation plan to deal with ongoing preservation needs and cyclical maintenance,” says David J. Brown, the Trust’s executive vice president and chief preservation officer. “We can be helpful in demonstrating the value in having that kind of plan in place.”
Kathleen Cox, executive director of the Washington National Cathedral, hopes that the partnership with the Trust is only the beginning, as it will take large donations, on the scale of millions, to start the fundraising fire that will ignite the smaller donors. Cathedral officials announced the first of such donations on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake: a generous $5 million grant from the Lilly Endowment of Indianapolis. “The Lilly Endowment's gift is a transformational one that the foundation hopes will motivate other philanthropists across the country to respond as well. If they do, this will truly move the cathedral into the restoration phase of recovery,” Cox says.
The next step for Cathedral staff is to develop a preservation plan, as well as a list of all the other work that needs to be done. “Part of the problem is just identifying our universe,” Schwab says. And then the time-consuming restoration process can begin: “If I had every dollar of the $20 million that we need to fix the earthquake damage now,” he says, “it would still take us at least five years to repair things.”
Architect of the Capitol, Stephen Ayers, whose charge is the care and preservation of the Capitol Campus, says that if you look out across the city, “it’s the cathedral, the Washington Monument, and the Capitol that dominate the skyline of Washington, D.C., and help make it who we are.” That the top of the cathedral is higher than the other two is no accident. Bishop Satterlee followed the tradition of the 13th-century cathedrals, which marked the location of cities on the landscape and were built on the highest hills, positioning them closest to the heavens. It’s also no accident that in a city of Neoclassical architecture, the cathedral’s style is Gothic. Satterlee decided that the Gothic style, with all its stained glass and ornaments depicting Christian themes, was “God’s style.”
But Ayers also reminds me that one of the most important architectural features of the cathedral isn’t a physical one at all. It’s all the craftsmen, such as Alonso, who will continue to spend their lives serving the building. “Guys like Joe are these master builders who come from antiquity,” he says. “The career path of architects developed out of these master builders who really understood how buildings worked before there were calculators and software programs that helped us understand.”
And though Alonso spends his sleepless nights strategizing, eager to get started on fixing the cathedral, he’s also dismayed at how much needs to be redone. “As a stone mason, it’ll be a challenge, but it’s sad, because I worked on this building so long. I never dreamed I’d be reconstructing pinnacles. I said to Andy one day, ‘Can you believe what we are doing? We’re taking the pinnacle apart.’”
The cathedral’s Reverend Canon Jan Naylor Cope likens the damage to the injury of a family member—for her, as well as for Alonso, Callahan, and Uhl. “I’ll never forget their faces the day of [the earthquake]. It damaged something very dear to them, something they spent many years of their lives on.”
Lindsey M. Roberts is a freelance writer and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in architecture and design.