National Cathedral exterior 2015
September 30, 2015

A (Very) Close Look at Washington National Cathedral's Earthquake Repairs

A little more than four years ago, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake rocked Washington National Cathedral. Staff members ran from the Gothic-style building as the carillon bells clanged in the shaking Central Tower. Pinnacles weighing hundreds and even thousands of pounds tumbled down, most of them luckily falling inward onto the structure’s parapets, rather than outward, where they might have caused bodily harm.

“The way stuff fell that day, it fell the right way,” says Joe Alonso, the cathedral’s mason foreman.

National Cathedral Repairs laser pointer 2015

Mason foreman Joe Alonso points out a missing finial on the east side of the cathedral’s South Transept.

Built between 1907 and 1990 -- the 25th anniversary of the final stone’s placement was yesterday -- the cathedral is one of the most prominent houses of worship in the country. (Architecture buffs also know the Indiana limestone building for its 3,000-plus carved creatures, including a grotesque in the form of Darth Vader.) After the quake, the cathedral’s leadership went into action, raising $2 million for a 12-week stabilization program needed to make the space safe for visitors again.

National Cathedral Repairs central tower scaffold 2015

Scaffolding on the Central Tower.

An additional $8 million was raised for the engineering and implementation of Phase One of the restoration efforts. ($100,000 came through Partners in Preservation, an American Express grants program in partnership with the National Trust. The Trust, which counts the Cathedral as one of its National Treasures, has also provided technical assistance and support for the restoration.)

Phase One concluded in June, and National Trust digital content director Julia Rocchi and I got to see the results up close and personal a few weeks ago. Alonso and director of preservation and facilities Jim Shepherd showed us the interior ceiling repairs and the six steel-reinforced flying buttresses on the oldest part of the cathedral, as well as the repaired cracks, cleaned and re-pointed joints, and added lightning protection.

National Cathedral Repairs new lightning rod 2015

Added lightning rods provide extra protection during thunderstorms.

But Alonso and Shepherd emphasized that there’s quite a bit more work to do. “A lot of the inside work is done: the ceiling is clean, we got the netting down,” says Alonso. “But a lot of the up-high elements are in the Phase Two category.”

It won’t be cheap: this next phase will cost $24 million, $1 million of which has been raised. The scaffolding that tops the Central Tower, visible from all over the Washington area, is in place for stabilization purposes only -- no work will happen there until funding is in place.

“We’ve only done one-eighth of what we have to do on the exterior,” Shepherd says.

National Cathedral Repairs missing finial 2015

A missing finial on the northwest side of the Cathedral.

Another hot spot is the North Transept, where much of the quake damage occurred.

“The pinnacles and finials had a lot of rotation, even the ones that stayed on,” says Alonso, and on our tour we saw exactly what he was talking about. One finial, nicknamed “Twisted Sister” by the stonemasons, looked like a beach drip castle; its top five stones rotated during the quake, each in a different direction.

The National Trust’s PastForward conference will hold its opening plenary and reception at the National Cathedral on November 4.

Meghan Drueding is the executive editor of Preservation magazine. She has a weakness for Midcentury Modernism, walkable cities, and coffee-table books about architecture and design.

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