January 30, 2024

Restoring Finials at Washington National Cathedral: A Conversation with Iris Howe

The exterior facade of the Washington National Cathedral (WNC) contains hundreds of intricate layers of architectural detail. When looking at these layers of detail, one might ask “Who made that spire?” or “How did that gargoyle come to be?” or “How long has it been here?” Sometimes the answers are surprising.

In 2021, the WNC was awarded a $250,000 grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places to repair masonry damaged by the 2011 earthquake in Washington, D.C. The National Fund is a program of Partners for Sacred Places in collaboration with the National Trust. While following along with that repair work, National Trust staff heard about Iris Howe, who in the summer and fall of 2022 carved two finials for the WNC as part of a summer internship and capstone project. This experience was part of Howe’s training to be a stone carver at the American College of the Building Arts located in Charleston, South Carolina.

photo by: Iris Howe

Iris Howe training at Washington National Cathedral in 2022.

In May of 2023 Howe graduated, and now works in Charleston as a stone carver. When asked about the legacy and permanence of her work, Howe said, “when I’m carving, I am just thinking about the moment I am in. I am never thinking about how long my work is going to be in existence when I am carving. I don’t think about that until I’m done with something and am mulling it over. [For the WNC finials] it wasn’t until I was done and looking at the finials [and showing it to others] that it hit me that my work would exist long into the future.”

To learn more—including the challenges of moving heavy stone hundreds of miles —I asked Howe a few questions about the process of restoring and carving finials for the WNC.

photo by: Iris Howe

A view of the location of the two finials that Howe worked on as part of her capstone project.

How did you become interested in stone carving and why did you decide to pursue it as a career?

When it came time to pick colleges, I thought about things I was good at: I was good at chorus, I was good at art, but what I was really great at was building things with LEGOs. At the time, the architectural stone training program at the American College of the Building Arts (ACBA) primarily focused on masonry, so it was mostly training skills associated with bricklaying and with a little bit of stone carving. I thought, ‘I’m really good at LEGOs so I’ll be really good at bricklaying’, so I chose the ACBA for school, and I specifically chose the architectural stone specialization.

Once I got to school, however, the program had shifted its focus from masonry to stone carving, and I [became] the first student to focus solely on stone carving. We learned the basics of masonry, like how to repoint and how to lay brick, but I was the first one to just do carving from the start.

photo by: Iris Howe

Iris Howe and Eric Holdway, the site supervisor for Lorton Stone, on the top of the Washington National Cathedral.

photo by: Iris Howe

A view of the structural support on the spire at the Washington National Cathedra. This is a close up view of the location of the two finials that Howe worked on.

What were the logistics of moving around large pieces of stone – specifically, moving them around in/around Washington DC, Northern Virginia, and Charleston?

During winter break, I drove my mom’s van up to Washington, D.C. from Northern Virginia and picked up the model (the one from the building that is used to carve the new finials), the finial I had partially completed during my internship, and the finial I was going to carve from start to finish as part of my capstone. Once I finished them, I loaded them in my little Acura sedan and drove them from Charleston to Northern Virginia. I strapped the model in the passenger seat with the seatbelt, put one finial in the backseat and one in the trunk so the weight distribution wouldn’t mess up my car. They each weighed about 100 pounds.

Once I got to Northern Virginia, we loaded them back into my mom’s van and drove the van [into the city], dropped them off at the Cathedral, and drove home. Both are going on the central tower but haven’t been installed yet. They’re working their way around the building, and I don’t think they’ll get to that part for another year or two.

photo by: Iris Howe

Howe transported the two finials in the back of her mother's minivan. Driving them from Washington, D.C. to Charleston and back.

photo by: Iris Howe

Some of the stencils and guides used by Howe as part of the carving work for her capstone project.

Once you got the stone to school to begin working on it, what did you do next?

I took a lot of measurements and made templates. It took probably about an hour of work taking measurements from the model and from the parts of the finial I had already partially completed to make templates out of plywood. The templates are used to trace the shape onto the stone so you know where to carve. You have to make a bunch of reverses which is an opposite of what the shape is. Once all of that is done, you start cutting and carving. Sometimes you start with just a block of stone but the finials for the Cathedral had been roughly cut to shape with a CNC router before I got them. In this case the CNC router takes away large amounts of material, leaving the shaping and detail work to the stone carvers.

photo by: Iris Howe

One of the guides used by Howe as part of her project.

photo by: Iris Howe

A view of how the various stencils and guides were used as part of Howe's carving capstone project.

How much creative autonomy were you given in the process?

I think it’s important when you’re doing restoration work, it’s something that someone has already done and it’s not about you and it’s not about how good you are. It’s about matching what’s already there. I think it’s cool that I did it, and that it will last a long time, but I am not in it so that I can point to it and say, “I did that.” It’s such a small piece on the building, but hundreds of people contributed to this, it’s not about me and my creativity.

I think the biggest thing I learned from working at the cathedral is respecting the work that other people did before you and not trying to out-do them in this type of work. Unlike art, restoration is not about making something that hasn’t existed before. I appreciate both sides of it, but I think I prefer restoration because it’s more of a puzzle. It’s about making it look right again. I carved my initials into the finials but it’s so tiny that even if you know what to look for you must be very close to see it.

photo by: Iris Howe

Howe working one of the two finials for her capstone project.

photo by: Iris Howe

A view of the completed finials along with the model used by Howe as part of the project.

What are your thoughts on the perpetuation of traditional trades?

I found something that I’m good at that I really enjoy doing. I love to work with my hands. I knew one kid who went to trade school and he went and did HVAC. That’s a trade but it’s completely different. That’s what people think of when they think of trade school.

If I had my way and had infinite time, I would go on a tour of [the United States] and say you don’t have to have an office job. You can do anything, like art, and you can also make a living. If you want to be an artist, you don’t have to be a painter or an illustrator. You don’t have to do art school, you can do trade school, and be an apprentice. I was the kid in middle school and high school who took the career test and got “construction worker” and I was mad about it, which is so funny to me now. It is just about awareness.

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Ann Phillips is the preservation architect for the National Fund for Sacred Places at the National Trust for Historic preservation. She and her spouse are currently restoring their 1912 Arts & Crafts house in northwest Iowa where her family has lived and farmed for over 100 years.

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