Stonework Removed From Top of National Cathedral

Stone masons working in thick fog at the top of the Washington National Cathedral on Thursday removed 2 tons of stonework from a pinnacle damaged by the August earthquake.

A worker standing on scaffolding at the top of the 330-foot central tower gave voice directions to a crane operator below to carefully lower the section of hand-carved stonework. Within minutes, it was on the ground.

Three of the four pinnacles on the central tower, which date back to 1963, were severely damaged in the 5.8-magnitude earthquake on Aug. 23. The 2-ton section removed Thursday had shifted about 8 1/2 inches off its base during the earthquake, hanging over the edge of the lower portion of the pinnacle. The 4-foot-tall top portions of the pinnacles, called the finials, fell off during the earthquake and crashed onto the cathedral roof.

Joseph Alonso, the cathedral's head stone mason, said he has been working since then to remove all loose stones so the gothic cathedral can safely reopen. It has been closed since the earthquake but is scheduled to reopen for the first time Nov. 12.

"Now we're deconstructing, and then we have to construct (the cathedral) again," said Alonso who has worked at the cathedral for 26 years. "That's what's crazy about it."

The cathedral was completed in 1990 after 83 years of work.

Dozens of hand-carved stones were damaged in the earthquake, and mortar holding some sections together was broken loose. More damaged stones and sections of another pinnacle on the central tower will be removed through Friday.

Large sections of stone are stacked one on top of the other, mostly held together by their own weight and a slim section of mortar. Alonso said he has found coins in the mortar between some sections of stone left by the masons who built the cathedral. He saved the coins and said he will place them back into the mortar when the stonework is reattached to the towers.

Some damaged pieces will be sent to stone mills in Indiana to be replicated with matching limestone, Alonso said. Much of the original limestone for the cathedral came from Indiana, as well. The repairs will take months and likely years to complete.

The work will continue, weather permitting, Alonso said. There are wind limits to operate the crane. In early September, a massive crane that was being dismantled at the site collapsed and injured two workers.

Before the earthquake, Alonso had been part of the group that completed the cathedral's construction and was working to maintain and improve the building.

"To see this happen, for me personally, it's sad," he said. "I never dreamed we'd be reconstructing parts of this building again. ... I didn't think it would come full circle like this."

The cathedral has announced a campaign to raise $25 million by the end of 2012. At least $15 million of that would fund the initial repairs. The remaining funds would support the cathedral's operating budget, which has suffered in the economic downturn.