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Washington National Cathedral

Washington National Cathedral



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Washington National Cathedral – officially the Cathedral of St. Paul – is the national cathedral of United States.Located at Massachusetts and Wisconsin avenues, Northwest, in Washington, D.C., it is the second-largest cathedral in United States and is ranked sixth in the world. As recognition to its historic element, the Washington National Cathedral has been designated a place in the National Register of Historic Places.Washington National Cathedral is the official seat of both the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, USA, and the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, mother church of the Episcopal Church in the District of Columbia and the Maryland counties of Charles, St. Mary's, Prince George's, and Montgomery.Washington National Cathedral has a quite long and unusual history: in fact, the conception of the idea to build a national cathedral could be as old as Washington itself.In 1791, when President George Washington commissioned Major Pierre L’Enfant to design an overall plan for the future seat of the government, a national church also featured in the architect’s scheme of things.The plan for such a church passed in and out of various discussions for more than 100 years, but nothing solid happened until 1893, when the Congress passed a charter allowing the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of District of Colombia to establish a church and institutions of higher learning.The charter signed by President Benjamin Harrison was virtually the birth certificate of Washington National Cathedral, an official go-ahead which eventually culminated in the historic church.Soon land was secured on Mount St. Alban – the most commanding spot then in the entire Washington area - and in September 1907, the cornerstone was laid.There began one of the longest constructions ever to be undertaken for a church that would eventually take 83 years to attain completion. The project had Frederick Bodley as the head architect and Henry Vaughan as his supervising counterpart.In 1912, the Bethlehem Chapel was opened for services in the unfinished cathedral, something which it has continued to perform daily since.The General Convention of the Episcopal Church at the cathedral followed in 1928.Though the construction was progressing in a snails pace, Washington National Cathedral continued to find itself in the pages of history. Woodrow Wilson’s tomb was dedicated here, in 1956, and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., preached his last Sunday sermon from the Canterbury Pulpit, in 1968.Washington National Cathedral has also witnessed the State funerals of two U.S. Presidents - Dwight D. Eisenhower’s in 1969 and that of Ronald Reagan, in 2004.Washington National Cathedral’s nave and west rose window were completed in 1976. President, Gerald Ford.The Pilgrim Observation Gallery was completed in 1982, and finally the west towers in September 1990, thus bringing an end to a project that took more than a century of planning and 83 years in construction.Since the first services were held in Bethlehem Chapel, Washington National Cathedral has always welcomed people of all faiths, as they have gathered to worship and pray, to mourn the passing of world leaders, and to confront the pressing moral and social issues of the day.


A Brief History Of The National Cathedral

French architect Pierre L’Enfant, commissioned by George Washington himself, drafted a Grand Plan of Washington, D.C. in 1791. He designed the new capital’s layout, setting aside land for a “great church for national purposes”. And so the National Cathedral was born – perhaps America’s most stunning piece of architecture.

After a series of disputes though, Washington fired L’Enfant, and the city existed without a particularly organized design for over a century. Following urban chaos and a desire for a more ordered layout, the original plan was revisited in the late 1800s. In 1891, the idea of L’Enfant’s proposed National Cathedral was revived, and construction commenced in the early 1900s.

Soon after construction began, WWI broke out, and the project temporarily halted. The cathedral always has, and continues to, rely entirely on private funding and donations and during the war, the money stopped. By the time it resumed, both of the leading architects, George Brodley and Henry Vaughan, had died. Philip H. Frohman was selected as the new principal architect, with the understanding that he’d abide by the original blueprints.

Known for his English Gothic style, Frohman blended Gothicism with a uniquely American character he sought to create a testament to American architecture, not merely a copy of the classical European cathedrals. He revised the original blueprint, inserting his own flair, and intentionally inserted flaws and asymmetry into the plans – abiding by medieval church builders’ customs that only God can be perfect. Frohman also mimicked medieval architecture by dotting the exterior with stone gargoyles. In modern times, the Cathedral has hosted two design contests for new gargoyles, which eventually lead to an eclectic limestone Darth Vader gargoyle placed on the northwest tower.

The National Cathedral’s grounds, comprising 56 acres, are just as exquisite as its architecture. Frohman retained the idea of grand gardens proposed by the original landscape architect, leading to a “Garden of the Ages”. Today, the scenic Bishop’s Garden remains a staple of the cathedral and an immensely popular tourist destination.

Since its infancy, the National Cathedral has served as a significant national landmark, and hosted a wide array of historical events. Presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, and Ford’s state funeral services were all held at the cathedral, as was Neil Armstrong’s. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the final sermon of his life, days before his assassination, at the National Cathedral’s pulpit. The Dalai Lama spoke there in 2014. During WWII, monthly national services were held on behalf of the rising body counts, and Congress then designated the cathedral “The National House of Prayer” – although technically it’s of the Episcopalian denomination.

Yet the historic building was forced to close its doors after the 2011 earthquake, which rocked much of the East Coast the incident caused irrevocable damage to the cathedral, shaking the structure from its foundation, cracking it, and loosening vital structural stones. It has since completed the first stage of restoration, but due to serious financial debt and general deterioration, the second phase will cost an estimated $200 million. With this sizeable bill in mind, the cathedral is currently planning one of the most massive fundraising campaigns by a religious institution, ever.

The National Cathedral is a highlight of the District, and of a nation which lacks architecturally but it’s particularly beloved by local Washingtonians as a peaceful destination to read and relax. Hopefully, the restoration campaign will be a success – otherwise DC is at risk of losing a historical and architectural gem.


Washington National Cathedral

Washington National Cathedral, officially known as the “Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul,” is the “church for national purposes” called for by President George Washington on January 24, 1791 initially advocated by intention of William W. Corcoran in 1871 and chartered by Congress during the administration of President Benjamin Harrison in 1893. The first stone of Washington National Cathedral was laid on September 29, 1907, in the presence of President Theodore Roosevelt.

A major seat of the Episcopal Church in the U.S. over the years, located on the highest hill in the District of Columbia, Washington National Cathedral has formed a focal point in the city as well as a place to celebrate and mourn events of national and international significance.

From state funerals and presidential inaugurations, to national holidays and services such as those for the September 11 terrorist attacks, events of all kinds have been marked at Washington National Cathedral. It was also the site of the final Sunday sermon of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968.

The Cathedral’s attractions include its stained glass windows, which depict an array of themes and events ranging from nature to space exploration and the American Civil War. Memorials appear throughout the Cathedral, including the War Memorial Chapel, as do exhibits and numerous works of art. The tomb of President Woodrow Wilson, the only president to be buried in the District of Columbia, is also located there.


Interesting facts about the Washington National Cathedral

The Washington National Cathedral, is a cathedral of the Episcopal Church located in Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States.

The official name of the cathedral is the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington.

Washington National Cathedral is of Neo-Gothic design closely modeled on English Gothic style of the late fourteenth century

It is the sixth largest cathedral in the world and the second largest in the United States.

Washington National Cathedral stands tall in the nation’s capital. It is the city’s fourth-tallest building and the building with the highest point, rising 206 meters (676 feet) above sea level atop Mount Saint Alban in Northwest.

The cathedral is the seat of both the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church and the Bishop of the Diocese of Washington.

Stonemasons and builders erected the cathedral beginning in 1907, completing it 83 years later in 1990.

Construction started September 29, 1907, with a ceremonial address by President Theodore Roosevelt and the laying of the cornerstone.

The completion of the west towers marked the end of 83 years of construction, as President George H.W. Bush wishes “God speed the work completed this noon and the new work yet to begin.”

The $65 million to build the cathedral was raised through private donations.

Designed by four different architects, this 7,712-square meter (83,012-square foot), structure is comprised of Indiana limestone.

The cathedral is built in the shape of a cross, its length extending some 160 meters (530 feet), and can seat about 4,000 people.

Its design shows a mix of influences from the various Gothic architectural styles of the Middle Ages, identifiable in its pointed arches, flying buttresses, a variety of ceiling vaulting, stained-glass windows and carved decorations in stone, and by its three similar towers, two on the west front and one surmounting the crossing.

The height of the two west towers is 71.3 meters (234 feet) and the height of the central Gloria In Excelsis Deo tower is 91.7 meters (301 feet) -the highest point in Washington, D.C.

There are 288 angels atop the two west towers.

There are 112 gargoyles and 1000 grotesques on the Washington National Cathedral.

There were two competitions held for the public to provide designs to supplement those of the carvers. The second of these produced the famous Darth Vader Grotesque which is high on the northwest tower, sculpted by Jay Hall Carpenter and carved by Patrick J. Plunkett.

Unique in North America, the central tower has two full sets of bells—a 53-bell carillon and a 10-bell peal for change ringing. The largest bell measuring 2.6 meters (8 ft 8 in) in diameter and weight 10,886 kilograms (24,000 pounds).

The one-story porch projecting from the south transept has a large portal with a carved tympanum. This portal is approached by the Pilgrim Steps, a long flight of steps 12 meters (40 feet) wide.

The interior of Washington National Cathedral abounds in architectural sculptures, wood carvings, mosaics and wrought iron pieces.

The scale and size of the Cathedral’s High Altar reflect its significance in the church’s life, but also the more practical need to be seen from the far end of the nave, 160 meters (530 feet) away. In fact, the golden cross at the center of the altar stands about 1.8 meters (6 feet) tall.

The long stalls of the Great Choir stand between the High Altar and the nave. The oak stalls were designed by Cathedral architects and carved by furniture makers Irving & Casson-A.H. Davenport and Company. During the week, the Great Choir provides seating for worshippers, and on Sundays, for the Cathedral Choir.

The Cathedral’s spectacular vaulted ceiling transmits the weight of the roof and walls across delicate ribs and down the heavy trunks of stone piers.

There are 215 stained glass windows in the Cathedral – the most familiar of which may be the Space Window, honoring mankind’s landing on the Moon, which includes a fragment of lunar rock at its center the rock was presented at the dedication service on July 21, 1974, the fifth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission.

Most of the interior decorative elements have Christian symbolism, in reference to the church’s Episcopal roots, but the cathedral is filled with memorials to persons or events of national significance: statues of Washington and Lincoln, state seals embedded in the marble floor of the narthex, state flags that hang along the nave, stained glass commemorating events like the Lewis and Clark expedition and the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima.

Throughout its long history, the impressive place of worship has been inextricably connected to the national and international stages as the venue for state funerals and memorial services for American presidents, the destination for presidential prayer services post inauguration, host to British royalty and even the site of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s last Sunday sermon in its Canterbury Pulpit.

The cathedral has been designated by Congress as the “National House of Prayer.”

In 2007, it was ranked third on the List of America’s Favorite Architecture by the American Institute of Architects.

In 2011 a rare 5.8-magnitude earthquake struck the east coast and caused an estimated $32 million in damage to the Cathedral.

People of all faiths, or no particular faith, are among the 500,000 who visit or come to worship each year.


The Decades-Long Journey to Restore the National Cathedral

High up on scaffolding on the southeast side of the Washington National Cathedral, the cathedral’s longtime head stone mason Joe Alonso works six feet apart from the nearest craftsman as they carefully disassemble and remove dangerously loose pinnacle stones dating back to the 1920s with the aid of a giant crane.

During the COVID-19 crisis, construction work has been deemed essential by the mayor of Washington, D.C., and Alonso and his crew of skilled masons and carvers are taking every precaution—practicing, as Alonso puts it, “social distancing stone masonry.” Spreading out across multiple scaffolding decks, with each craftsman wearing a protective mask, they continue their ongoing efforts to safeguard and restore the cathedral, a magnificent 14th-century Gothic-style landmark that was severely damaged when an earthquake rocked the city on August 23, 2011. For Alonso and his team, it has been a long and unexpected journey.

The earthquake’s seismic energy shot up through the cathedral’s highest elements “like the tip of a whip,” shaking its intricately carved pinnacles and slender spires, sending finials and angels plummeting, causing heavy stones to rotate dramatically and flying buttresses to crack. “It was like a punch to the gut,” says Alonso, describing the shock and disbelief he felt as he surveyed the damage for the first time from the top of the 300-foot central tower.

Stabilization cables hold unstable giant pinnacle stones in place on the cathedral's south transept. (Colin Winterbottom, courtesy of Washington National Cathedral) The 20-ton southwest grand pinnacle on the cathedral's south transept suffered extensive damage when multiple courses of stone severely shifted and broke during the earthquake. (Joe Alonso, courtesy of Washington National Cathedral) A finial stone, shaken loose by the earthquake, lies shattered on the cathedral's roof. (Colin Winterbottom, courtesy of Washington National Cathedral)

Decorative carvings lay shattered in pieces on the roof and in the gutters. Giant stones that make up the four grand pinnacles of the central tower had shifted almost completely off their mortar beds and were perched precariously, looking “like a game of Jenga.” Three of the four pinnacles were missing their tops. The 500-pound, four-foot-tall finials that crown them had crashed to the tower’s roof. “Seventy-five percent of the highest elements rotated,” says James Shepherd, the cathedral’s director of preservation and facilities from 2003 to 2019.

“Boom! It went up through the tops of everything,” Alonso says. “We’re lucky it didn’t last a few seconds longer.”

All told, the cathedral sustained a staggering $34 million in damage. As funding comes in from generous donors, the staff has been able to tackle the earthquake restoration work in phases, making slow but impressive progress, including critical masonry repairs and reinforcement to the west towers, flying buttresses and north transept. But after nine years, there is still $19 million to raise and a monumental amount of work to accomplish.

Faced with devastating damage and a massive restoration effort, the cathedral has a major asset in its favor: three highly skilled craftsmen who helped to build the structure and have been working for years to maintain and preserve the 113-year-old national treasure: Alonso and stone carvers Sean Callahan and Andy Uhl.

Cathedral craftsmen Andy Uhl, Joe Alonso and Sean Callahan pose in the stone mason shop. (Xueying Chang, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives)

The Artisans

Leading the cathedral’s team of craftspeople, Alonso is a master builder who has devoted 35 years of his life to the cathedral, first as a stone mason helping to construct this monumental building, and then as the head mason in charge of caring for the century-old stonework, preserving the fine craftsmanship of generations of masons and carvers. “I know every crack in this place,” he says.

Alonso first came to the cathedral in 1985 to help craft the west towers. He was already a seasoned journeyman mason. But, he is quick to point out: “I almost had to start from scratch. No one builds 14th-century Gothic stonework anymore, these thick, load-bearing masonry walls, arches, tracery. It was like learning the trade all over again, this style of stonework.”

He had the benefit of learning on the job from legends in the trade like master masons Billy Cleland and Isidore Flaim, and longtime dedicated workers like Otto Epps, all of whom generously shared the knowledge and skills they had learned from the craftsmen who came before them. “They were great teachers,” Alonso says of the time and care they spent showing him different techniques, tools and methods required for properly handling and setting the cathedral’s large, heavy, intricately decorated stones. “Billy expected perfection. He expected the best. The standards have always been so high on this building, the craftsmanship, from day one. So that’s ingrained in you working here, knowing that you need to keep it going, step it up.”

The construction of the Washington National Cathedral began in 1907 and took 83 years to complete. Over the course of nearly a century, hundreds of artisans—stone masons, stone carvers, woodworkers, stained glass artisans, ornamental blacksmiths and many others—built its soaring towers and flying buttresses and crafted the many gargoyles, grotesques, angels and countless other decorative details that are an integral part of Gothic design. Heir to the accumulated knowledge of generations of craftspeople, Alonso not only brings his specialized skills to the earthquake restoration efforts, but a commitment to excellence and a deep sense of connection to the masons who came before him.

“Just seeing their work, the work itself speaks to me,” he says. “When you’re walking way back on the apse, or the great choir, built back in the 1910s and 1920s, and seeing the work they did, they actually set the standard for us as we were building the last portions of the cathedral. At least I felt that when I was up there. It had to be as good as their work.”

On September 29, 1990, exactly 83 years after the laying of the foundation stone, Alonso was given the great honor of setting the cathedral’s last stone: the final grand finial on the southwest tower. He says it felt like all the other masons were up there with him, “maneuvering that big finial into position, checking it, making sure it was level and true.”

Joe Alonso guides the top three courses of a pinnacle weighing 2,500 pounds away from the cathedral's north transept and down to the ground. (Colin Winterbottom, courtesy of Washington National Cathedral) Head stone mason Joe Alonso is a master builder who has worked at the Washington National Cathedral for 35 years. (Xueying Chang, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives) Stone carvers Andy Uhl and Sean Callahan repair damaged sections of pinnacle stones from the central tower in the stone masonry shop at Washington National Cathedral. "What motivates us is the work itself," Callahan says. "We just like being in the shop and working and producing and watching the piece materialize. That's what gets you up in the morning." (Joe Alonso, courtesy of Washington National Cathedral) The carver's skilled touch gives beauty and humanity to handcrafted works in stone. (Xueying Chang, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives)

Working together with Alonso are journeymen stone carvers Sean Callahan and Andy Uhl, both of whom learned their craft at the cathedral in the 1980s, apprenticing with former master stone carver Vincent Palumbo, a fifth-generation carver who learned the trade from his father and grandfather in Italy before immigrating to the United States in 1961. Palumbo worked at the cathedral for more than half his lifetime󈟷 years—until his death in 2000. In a small carving workshop bustling with about a dozen apprentices, he taught Callahan and Uhl how to carve finials, angels, crocket stones and other decorative details of Gothic architecture destined for the rising west towers.

Both men feel that learning the craft in a production setting was key to their training, for they acquired not only the skills necessary to carve Indiana limestone into Gothic-style shapes, but the ability to create quality work with speed, precision and efficiency. “There’s an expectation of output, and that’s a good thing,” Callahan says. “They wanted you to get it done and out of the shop, so there’s a time pressure.”

“Learning it from a practical standpoint was really helpful,” Uhl agrees. “You need to be fast and good.”

As the work on the cathedral neared completion, Callahan and Uhl left in 1989 to work on the restoration of the White House and other jobs in the area. Uhl returned to the cathedral in 2004, and Callahan in 2005, to devote their time and talents as carvers and masons to the maintenance and preservation of the building. Occasionally, they carved new pieces of sculpture, ornament, or lettering, as needed.

All that changed dramatically after the 2011 earthquake, when the craftsmen leapt into urgent stabilization, restoration and reconstruction mode. Fortunately for the cathedral, they had the perfect team of artisans already in place.

“There’s not many guys who have come up in this Gothic cathedral carving world,” Alonso says. “Thank God that we’ve got these guys who honed their skills on the west towers. We’ve got the talent with Andy and Sean to do the fine Dutchmen repairs and re-carving of entire pieces that fell off.”

“We’re in a unique situation,” Callahan says. “We learned here, and then we ended up being employed here again, so when the earthquake happened, we knew what to do. We have the intimate knowledge of how it’s done. It’s a nice way to pay back the cathedral for teaching me.”

The Work

Alonso describes the swirl of activity in the first few days and weeks after the earthquake as “masonry triage.” The first step was to inspect and assess the damage, working to stabilize and secure unstable stones, making the building safe. They quickly assembled a team of architects, engineers and the cathedral’s crew of craftsmen to chart a course of action for stabilization, restoration and repair. “We have a great team, a very collaborative team. Our voice is at the table, and I appreciate that,” Alonso says.

“The Cathedral stonemasons’ rare perspective was perhaps the greatest blessing of all,” wrote Leigh Harrison in Cathedral Age. “The three-man team had the background and skills to make knowledgeable and immediate judgments.”

One of the first crucial tasks was to erect scaffolding in order to “get up to the work,” which in most cases is hundreds of feet off the ground. Alonso worked with the engineers and the scaffolding company as they designed and constructed the scaffold. “Scaffolding a Gothic cathedral is probably the most complex scaffolding there is, with all the flying buttresses and pinnacles and buttress arches,” he says. “I’ve been around here so long, I know exactly what’s required, what kind of scaffold. ‘We need to get to the top of all these pinnacles, we need this many working decks, here’s your access, you can tie into the wall here.’ All this weird stuff that’s in my head!”

Wherever possible, the team has dismantled and removed the most severely damaged and unstable stones, relocating them to a storage area on the cathedral grounds or the stone mason’s shop for repair or replication. Steel cables and the strong metal support beams of protective scaffolding hold other stones in place until the necessary repairs can be made. Alonso, Callahan and Uhl work closely with a crew of skilled masons from Lorton Stone, the stone contractor hired to assist with the earthquake restoration.

Alonso has played a key role, sharing his firsthand knowledge of how the elaborately embellished pinnacles are put together, how to properly rig the ornately carved stones so that when they’re lifted “you don’t pop the whole corner off,” how to work with the operators of huge cranes to safely hoist and guide the heavy stones off the towers and down to the ground, and then, later, re-set the restored elements back in place. The opportunity to pass on his expertise to some of the young masons from Lorton Stone has been a keen source of satisfaction. “I’ve kind of taught these guys what Billy taught me,” he says.

Joe Alonso and members of the masonry crew disassemble a central tower grand pinnacle, stone by stone, as part of the stabilization process. (Craig Stapert, courtesy of Washington National Cathedral)

On top of the west towers, Alonso had the “heartbreaking” job of dismantling some of the very pinnacle stones he once set in place, while Uhl and Callahan came face-to-face with angels and finials they had carved in the 1980s.

“I never thought we’d be taking the cathedral apart,” Alonso says.

In 2017, the masonry crew was able to restore, reinforce and reassemble the west towers’ twin pinnacles and remove the scaffolding. But the steel frames—visible today from all across the city—that shroud the top of the severely damaged central tower remain. They will secure the stones in place until funding comes to repair and rebuild the pinnacles to their former glory.

While the disassembled stones are on the ground, Callahan and Uhl work to restore them in the stone masons’ shop, a small, evocative space filled with tools, templates, old photos, and architectural drawings, with chain hoists, sturdy wooden work benches, stone dust, and carvings.

“Our goal is to save as much of the historic fabric as possible,” says Jim Shepherd, one of the central figures to lead the earthquake restoration efforts. In his view, the cathedral is lucky to have carvers like Callahan and Uhl who have the “speed and skill” necessary to do the work in a way that is efficient, cost effective and honors the high standards of the early craftsmen.

The carvers assess each stone. “If we can’t save a piece, we’ll re-carve the whole thing, but we try to save as much of the original as we can,” Callahan says. The most common kind of stone repair is called a “Dutchman.” Many of the pinnacle stones have broken corners or edges cracked off from the severe shaking. With hammer and chisels, the carvers cut out damaged sections to create a clean, flat surface. They then fit or “graft” a replacement block of stone snugly in place, securing it with epoxy and stainless steel pins, and carefully carve the stone “patch” to recreate the original. The trick is to get a perfect match.

“Indiana limestone is pretty consistent in color, so color matching is not a big issue,” he says. “You want to try and get the texture right.”

The old and the new: Sean Callahan uses the damaged original finial (middle), which he has pieced back together, as a model for the replacement finial (right) that he is carving out of a new piece of Indiana limestone. (Joe Alonso) Sean Callahan's recreation of the old finial replicates the texture and movement of the original piece. (Xueying Chang, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives) Sean Callahan strives to perfectly capture the style and spirit of the original craftsman's work as he carves a replacement finial for an unsalvageable pinnacle stone on the cathedral's south façade that was badly damaged during the earthquake. (Xueying Chang, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives)

“The hardest part to disguise is the joint itself. A nice tight graft is what we’re going for,” says Uhl, who is working on a Dutchman repair to a four-crocket stone for a pinnacle on the south side of the choir. He experiments with different tools, seeking to replicate the texture of the old piece. “I’ve gone to the old tool cabinet here, where we have a bunch of antique chisels. I saw an end finish on something and took an old tooth chisel and started laying it into the grooves of the original stone, and saying, ‘Hey this might be the exact tool that guy used. It seems to fit.’ You have to just feel your way through it and see what gives you the best result, and when you find it, it’s very satisfying.”

Callahan and Uhl have deep respect and admiration for the work of the original craftsmen. When a carving is “too far gone” to repair, they strive to faithfully recreate its style and workmanship in a new piece of stone. “We’re trying to honor the original,” Callahan says. “This piece here, this finial, fell off the south nave wall on the choir end and broke into several pieces. We decided it wasn’t worth salvaging, but we can use it to copy a new piece. I’m taking templates and measurements of it to reproduce it as a brand new piece.” As he works at his banker, pneumatic hammer and chisel in hand, he constantly refers to the broken finial on the work bench next to him, keeping a sharp eye on its subtleties of style and movement.

“I’m trying to get the sweep right,” he says, emulating the distinctive handwork of the craftsman who first created the carving one hundred years ago. “I ended up doing a lot of this freehand. I’m focusing now on getting his textures, because he left it very coarse. I always try to get nice smooth consistent lines, a nice flow, but he didn’t do that. He left it very choppy and very loose. So I’m actually changing the way I even hit with my hammer, just to try to get his attitude in my motion.”

The historic importance of the old pieces, the fact that they embody and carry forward the craftsmanship of the past, influences Callahan’s approach to his work. “When we were apprentices, everything had a pattern and a template to follow. You copy that shape, but it’s yours. You’re not hyper-focused on getting it just like the carver’s stone on the banker next to you. But here, now, it’s a historical piece, and I’m trying to get it as faithfully like the original as I can.”

“This guy did it a little differently than I do. He didn’t use templates the same way I did. It looks like it was a lot more freehand. So what I ended up doing, I can’t get an absolute template that’s right for each side, I’m just going to try and freehand it and mimic his style as best I can and get his movements the same.”

Alonso speaks with excitement about the opportunity the earthquake scaffolding has given them to view the craftsmanship on the oldest parts of the cathedral at close range. “The access that we now have to different parts of the building, the tops of the pinnacles of the central tower that I thought I’d never touch, just being up close to the work of the people who came so many years before us, is incredible. Andy and Sean love to be up there with all that old carving.”

“You can tell how the carving evolved over time, the way they embellished,” Callahan says. “The older stones are much more organic. They’re not as precise.”

“We see lots of subtleties and differences in the carving in various parts of the cathedral,” Uhl adds. “On the oldest part, you see how free and loose it is, and the nice movement they got. They left the edges rough. It seems so coarse, but when you stand back, it really reads well. We’re like, ‘Hey, this is nice work!’”

When asked if they can tell there were different carvers working up on the central tower, their response is immediate. “Yes! Yes, you can,” Callahan says. “Even sometimes on the same stone. Some guys, they’ll go deeper with their cuts and have more exaggerated swells in the leaves, and more shadow. Some have a more delicate touch. Everyone has their own personal style, their own little idiosyncrasies.”

For craftspeople in the building arts, restoration work expands their knowledge and skills, exposing them to different styles, materials, and methods, teaching them new techniques, giving them new challenges in their field. Callahan regards his work re-carving the old finial crafted by one of the cathedral’s early carvers as a valuable learning experience. “He obviously did it differently than we were taught, but the result is that it’s a much freer piece, it has more life to it, it has a nice flow,” he says. “So it’s taught me something about putting life in my own work and not make it so sterile. It’s nice that you can still, after 30 years, be learning stuff. That helps keep you interested in the work, when you still find things that are new each day.”

A computer-guided robotic drill cuts a replacement finial out of Indiana limestone for a cathedral pinnacle. Sean Callahan and Andy Uhl will complete the fine hand-carved touches in the stone masons' shop. (Colin Winterbottom, courtesy of Washington National Cathedral)

New Technology

In order to speed up the work and reduce costs, the carvers combine age-old techniques with cutting-edge advances in 3-D scanning and robotics. Using damaged stones as templates, offsite engineers make 3-D digital scans of the stone elements. A computer-guided robotic carving device then roughs out a replica from a block of Indiana limestone, creating a piece that is 75 percent complete. The roughed-out stone then goes to Callahan and Uhl in the shop to carve the fine details and finishing touches by hand.

“In the last eight years, the robotic and scanning technology that’s out there, it’s come a long way,” Alonso says. “So we’ve got this incredible technology that’s aiding us in the restoration work. It’s a big help.”

“It saves us the hard labor of physically removing large pieces of stone,” Callahan says. “The way we’re doing it now, it’s assisting us, and that’s a good thing. We can work together. The cathedral still wants the hand-done quality of what we do, so you don’t want the robot to go too close. We’re trying to grapple with how close do we get it and still have it be a hand-done piece.”

Although using robotically roughed out stones saves time and money, there is a downside to this new technology. The process of roughing out is one of the major ways that apprentices learn the craft. Alonso, Callahan and Uhl all expressed concern for how to balance the need to reduce costs and keep carving viable in today’s modern age with the need to preserve a critical means of training for artisans coming up in the craft.

“The way to learn to cut and carve is by roughing out,” Alonso says. “You learn by taking a block of stone and working it down, and learning the feel of that tool. It takes months to get the feel of it.”

In carving workshops and on job sites, the fine detail work would never be undertaken by a novice carver. Mastering the craft requires years of hands-on experience, working with the tools and materials, developing dexterity and control, a steady hand and trained eye.

“You need time on the material to become efficient with it,” Callahan says. Alonso agrees. “You can’t take a robotically roughed out piece and give it to an apprentice and say, ‘Okay, here.’ It’s all those years and time spent roughing and shaping so that you’re able to do the beautiful veining, the embellishment.”

The craftsmen’s concerns raise important questions about the role of new technology in the building arts and the need to foster and ensure the continuity of hand craftsmanship—the human touch of the artisan that gives beauty and meaning to our built heritage.

Angels await reinstallation on the dismantled twin pinnacles of the cathedral's west towers. (Colin Winterbottom, courtesy of Washington National Cathedral)

Looking to the Future

Like generations of stone carvers and masons before them, Callahan and Uhl were fortunate to learn the stone carving craft from a master stone carver, Vincent Palumbo, in a traditional apprenticeship environment at the cathedral. Alonso was taught Gothic-style masonry construction techniques on the job site by master mason Billy Cleland, “a true gentleman and patient teacher,” who, in turn, learned from his predecessor at the cathedral, the great Scottish American mason Alec Ewan. But today there is no craft training taking place at the cathedral.

“We don’t have apprentices right now, here, and that’s something that I get a little distressed about sometimes,” Alonso says. “Andy, Sean and I, we’re all in our 50s now. What do we have left? I have nine, ten years, I hope. We’re at a point now where we need to really think hard about passing on this knowledge.”

The problem is a difficult one. It takes funding to support and train apprentices. Budgets are tight at the cathedral, and there is still an enormous amount of funding the cathedral must raise to complete the earthquake repairs, on top of day-to-day maintenance and preservation work. Limited resources mean that the restoration project is necessarily deadline driven there’s not much time to teach on the job. The situation is not limited to the cathedral: It is a major issue nationwide.

For decades, the skilled building crafts have been in decline. There are not enough young people “coming up in the trades,” and traditional contexts for apprenticeship and training have been shrinking. Pathways to existing training programs and learning opportunities are largely hidden and difficult to discover. Very importantly, there needs to be a strong, steady demand for these craft skills, not only in historic preservation, but in new building, in order to ensure enough work for artisans to sustain a livelihood. One of the main obstacles facing the building arts is the fact these trades are undervalued in today’s society they are not given the recognition and respect they deserve. The reality is that traditional building crafts are endangered in the United States, and, with them, the ability to preserve and safeguard our nation’s cultural heritage.

As far back as 1968, a report commissioned by the National Trust for Historic Preservation stressed the urgent need to conserve the traditional building crafts, stating, “The survival of these crafts will require the most thoughtful solutions to human as well as economic problems. . . . A solution based on a national realization of the importance of these skills to our continuing culture.” More than 50 years later, many of the same challenges to the survival of traditional craftsmanship persist.

When Hurricane Hugo severely damaged historic homes and landmarks in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1989, the realization that there were not enough skilled artisans available to restore the city’s unique architectural heritage was the driving force behind establishing the American College of the Building Arts to help train a new generation of craftspeople. Masters of the crafts of stone carving, brick masonry, woodworking, plastering and blacksmithing were in short supply.

The devastating fire that swept through Notre-Dame de Paris on April 15, 2019, threw into high relief the need for skilled craftspeople to tackle the mammoth preservation effort required to restore and safeguard this iconic cultural treasure for present and future generations. In a July 20, 2019, piece for NPR piece entitled “Notre Dame Fire Revives Demand for Skilled Stone Carvers in France,” correspondent Eleanor Beardsley spoke with Frederic Létoffé, the president of the monuments restorers’ professional organization in France. He stated: “Our work involves very specific requirements and we are short of skilled labor in a dozen or so traditional professions. But the Notre Dame fire woke the country up. . . . Notre Dame made people realize that these skills are still needed and still important.”

“Historic preservation requires the preservation of knowledge and skill as well as buildings,” writes folklorist Henry Glassie. In recent years, important steps have been taken to revitalize and sustain traditional craftsmanship in the United States, including innovative outreach and training programs provided by the American College of the Building Arts, the National Park Service’s Historic Preservation Training Center, the Preservation Trades Network, the International Masonry Institute, the Timber Framers Guild and the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s HOPE Crew (Hands On Preservation Experience), to name just a few. There has been increased awareness on the part of architects, engineers, builders, preservation specialists, building owners, policymakers and the general public of the importance of quality craftsmanship and materials, and the value of the skilled trades to design, preservation and sustainability.

These are encouraging signs, but there is still much that needs to be done to foster the continuity of these centuries-old crafts—to recognize and honor building artisans for their invaluable contributions to architectural projects, and to nurture and encourage young people who want to become skilled stewards of our built environment.

Craftspeople in building arts—like the Washington National Cathedral’s great artisans Joe Alonso, Sean Callahan and Andy Uhl—play a critical role in safeguarding cultural heritage. They help communities preserve old places that hold treasured memories and meaning, identity and history. They create new structures of beauty and excellence that inspire and enrich us all. Their vast store of accumulated knowledge and skill needs to be preserved and passed onto future generations for the benefit of our shared humanity.

Washington National Cathedral's restored west towers, December 2019. (Xueying Chang, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives)

Marjorie Hunt is a folklorist and curator with the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Her grandfather, Pasquale Peronace, was a stone mason who immigrated to Philadelphia in the early 1900s from a small village in Calabria, Italy. Conducting research and fieldwork with artisans in the building trades is one of her great passions.


Visiting the Washington National Cathedral

Stained-glass windows, Gothic spires and flying buttresses make the Washington National Cathedral look ages old, but the grand church was actually constructed during the 20th century. Though overseen by the Episcopal Church, the house of worship welcomes people of all faiths to its impressive site on the highest point in DC.

History and architecture

Stonemasons and builders erected the cathedral beginning in 1907, completing it 83 years later in 1990. Carved from Indiana limestone, the structure boasts a 30-story-tall central tower, an interior nine-bay nave and 215 stained glass windows, including one embedded with a moon rock. Inside, you’ll find a crypt level where Helen Keller and President Woodrow Wilson are buried. On the nave level, you’ll discover an intricately carved wooden choir area and numerous serene chapels.

On the exterior, you can search out the 112 gargoyles (decorative rain spouts) and grotesques (carved stone creatures) with the help of a map (available at the entrance) or via guided tours conducted during summer months. Be on the lookout for the grotesque of Darth Vader and the hippie gargoyle.

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The grounds

You’ll find 59 acres of grounds designed by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. around the National Cathedral. Enclosed by stone walls, the medieval-style Bishop’s Garden includes herb plantings, roses and a 13th-century Norman arch. Stone paths wind through Olmstead Woods, one of the only old-growth forests in DC. There’s also a cafe serving coffee, desserts, brunch and lunch located on the grounds in the 1904 Old Baptistry building. Guided tours and a self-guided tour brochure can help you explore the green spaces.

Seeing the Cathedral

Church services and musical performances are the only way to experience the cathedral for free. Sunday services are open to all, and Monday through Thursday at 5:30 p.m., evening concerts fill the nave with singing.

Outside of spiritual visits, admission to the cathedral is required: $12 for adults, $8 for children ages 5 to 17 and free for kids 4 and under. The cathedral offers daily guided walking highlights tours with admission at 10:15 a.m. Monday through Saturday, and 1 p.m. on Sunday, although check the tour schedule for the latest updates.

Numerous ticketed specialty tours, including seasonal gargoyle hunts, artisanship-themed walks and tower climbs, are available to be booked in advance. You can also sightsee with Big Bus Tours, and its hop-on, hop-off tickets let you exit the bus to explore inside the cathedral once you're there.

After the National Cathedral, make a day of it exploring the Upper Northwest neighborhood.


American Treasures: The Washington National Cathedral

As you’ve learned from our Marvelous Masonry series, the structures created through the trade have a rich history and have stood the test of time. However, not all historic masonry is outside of the United States. In fact, one of the most storied buildings in the industry is based right in our nation’s capital, Washington D.C. The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, also known as the Washington National Cathedral, has been a focal point of faith for our country throughout the years.

The sixth largest in the world, the Washington National Cathedral’s construction started nearly 110 years ago in 1907. Then-president Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone on September 29, 1907 and kicked off construction. However, likely no one assumed that the project would only be completed another 83 years later to the day.

Filled with rich history and years of hard work and manpower, the MCAA and Masonry had the privilege of touring the Washington National Cathedral with Joe Alonso, Head Stone Mason of the building and Jim Shepherd, Director of Preservation and Facilities. Thanks to Joe, Jim and everyone at the cathedral for giving us the opportunity to share information on this American Treasure with our readers. For more detailed information on the Washington National Cathedral, please visit their website at: www.cathedral.org.

The History and Construction

The idea behind the Washington National Cathedral came about during the time of our first President. The year was 1791, and George Washington worked with Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a military engineer who worked on the basic plan for Washington D.C., to envision a “great church for national purposes” to be used by everyone and not any particular religion or denomination.

On January 4, 1792, President Washington’s plans for D.C. ran in The Gazette of the United States, Philadelphia. The site that was originally intended for the church, Lot D, eventually became The National Portrait Gallery. It would eventually take about a century for any further developments on the church.

In 1893, the US Congress issued a charter and incorporated the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia, which allowed the construction for the place of worship and institutions of higher learning. In 1896, a new location was chosen for the cathedral, approximately four miles northwest of the original choice. Mount Saint Alban would serve as the site for the structure, which at 400 feet above sea level would cement the project’s place as a focal point for the city.

It wouldn’t be until September 29, 1907 that then-President Theodore Roosevelt laid the first stone for the project. Part of the stone was sourced from a location near Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, for symbolic purposes. The stone was placed into a larger piece of American-sourced granite, and inscribed is the Biblical verse “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

With a project that took 83 years and cost an estimated $65 million, the Washington National Cathedral was clearly built to last. With a total weight of 300 million pounds and constructed in the English Gothic style of the 14 th century, one fact that may surprise our readers is that the structure does not use steel supports. Instead, artists, sculptors, and stone masons were brought in to achieve the classic look in a more modern era.

Built in the shape of a cross using Indiana limestone, the exterior of the cathedral features flying buttresses, intricate carvings, high arches, 112 gargoyles (including one in the shape of Darth Vader), and gutters large enough to walk through. The cathedral rises over 300 feet, and spans over 500 feet in length.

Built with private funds and receiving no money from the federal government nor the National Episcopal Church itself, construction had to be completed in phases over the past 83 years. The first part of the cathedral that was built was the Bethlehem Chapel, which still offers services to this day. It was placed atop the foundation stone at what is now considered the crypt level of the building.

The interior of the structure features a Medieval-inspired labyrinth designed to replicate the one in the nave of France’s Chartres Cathedral. Additionally, seven-story vaulted ceilings are a significant feature of the structure. Designed to transmit the weight of the roof and walls into the stone piers, the ceiling arches are capped by over 762 boss stones throughout the structure.

The work would eventually be completed in 1990, exactly 83 years after the date that the work first begun. Then-President George H.W. Bush attended the ceremony that saw the final finial placed on the west towers of the cathedral.

After its completion, the National Cathedral has hosted a variety of events and remembrances. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the cathedral held a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance Service on September 14, 2001. In 2004 after the death of former President Ronald Reagan, the cathedral was the site of his state funeral. Three years later in 2007, former President Gerald Ford’s state funeral was also held there. In 2009 and 2013, the church held the respective national prayer services for then-President Barack Obama. It has since hosted the national prayer service for President Donald Trump in 2017.

While the cathedral’s first few decades post-completion have been studded with several solemn and historic events, one in 2011 put the structure (and the masonry) to the test. The day was August 23, 2011, when a rare 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck at 1:51 pm.

The Earthquake

With an epicenter within the Piedmont area of Virginia, the quake is tied as the largest of its kind within the United States East of the Rocky Mountains. It caused several aftershocks of up to a 4.5 in magnitude, and was felt in over 10 states and neighboring Canadian provinces. Thankfully, only minor injuries and no deaths occurred as a result of the earthquake, but major damage was done to several buildings in the metropolitan area.

Unfortunately, the cathedral was one of those buildings. Several witnesses reported seeing elements of the structure shaking, twisting, and falling, according to Joe Alonso. He estimates that had the earthquake gone even seconds longer than the less-than-a-minute time it did, the damage could have been absolutely catastrophic both for the structure and those in and around the cathedral.

According to estimates, the destruction caused ranged from the $25 million to $34 million mark. On the cathedral’s website, the damages from the quake are highlighted.

  • The four grand pinnacles of the central “Gloria in Excelsis” tower rotated. Each grand pinnacle is over 40 feet tall, weighs about 50 tons, and is topped by a four-foot-tall grand finial that weighs about 500 pounds. Three of the four grand finials fell to the tower’s roof the top five courses of stone were shaken badly.
  • Additional smaller pinnacles atop the tower were badly damaged.
  • Dislodged stone struck a gargoyle and “decapitated” it. The gargoyle’s head was held in place only by the drainpipe that runs through the gargoyle to expel rainwater.
  • One grand pinnacle was so damaged that it cannot be removed until funds are in place for its restoration. It will remain encased in scaffolding until it can be repaired.
  • The grand pinnacles were so destabilized that workers could gently rock them back and forth on their bases.
  • Several pinnacles skipped up and rotated like spinning tops, and several slender pinnacles collapsed entirely.
  • The six freestanding flying buttresses of the east end—the oldest part of the cathedral—swayed or moved, causing the flying buttress arches to stretch and move, resulting in cracking and separation of stones from one another.
  • When construction began in 1907, there was no reinforcement used between stones. The seismic motion caused stones in the buttresses to shift and separate, and loosened and rotated the pinnacle stones.
  • Rotation and movement along almost every exterior pinnacle on the cathedral caused hundreds of spalled corners and stones (stones that have crumbled or flaked off), cracks, and fallen crockets and finials, requiring re-carving.

Immediately following the earthquake, the cathedral shut down from the Tuesday of the Earthquake to the Saturday of that weekend. A “Difficult Access Team” from the cathedral’s engineering firm was brought in to rappel along the cathedral and assess and document the issues that had occurred. Additionally, the in-house team, led by Joe Alonso, was brought in to assess the damage. After its completion, the repair and restoration work was broken into three phases: Immediate, Phase I, and Phase II.

Restoration Work

Immediately after the earthquake, the team primarily focused on securing the building and planning for future repairs. An added challenge was that the cathedral would remain open during the repair process. After the seismic event, cathedral leadership was able to raise around $2 million for the immediate repairs that would make the structure safe enough for the many visitors to enter the building.

Crews first installed 65 feet of scaffolding above the nave floor. This allowed crews to examine the vaulted ceilings and boss stones and provide any necessary cleaning. Falling debris would be caught through the installation of netting.

Outside the cathedral, the flying buttresses were the first place teams went. As the original buttresses did not have suitable reinforcement, teams drilled into them and installed steel rods around 25 feet in length. They were placed diagonally along the buttresses to provide stability in the event of another seismic event. Any pieces that fell or were shaken loose from the rooftops were secured, and many still sit in the same spot to this day.

Phase I of the restoration was funded by another $8 million, and concluded in June of 2015. The interior of the building looks like it never has before, with boss stones resembling what their original form. Decades of buildup were removed. Once again, the cathedral was safe for visitors. However, there is much more work to be done.

Jim Shepherd, the cathedral’s Director of Preservation and Facilities, estimates that even after the completion of the phase, there is still well over 85% of work left to do. Cracked buttresses need reinforcement, damaged and destroyed stonework needs to be recarved, the hand-carved finials of angels still aren’t at the tops of certain points of the building, and one decapitated gargoyle needs to be repaired of replaced.

The Central Tower’s scaffolding, still up to this day, is merely there to make sure that the building is safe. Currently, no active work is being done on that portion of the building until the necessary funds have been raised to complete the work.

Phase II of the project is going to be significantly costlier, with the cathedral’s own estimate being over $20 million. As such, this phase will take much longer than the first. The second phase of the project is so expansive that it has been broken into nine sub-phases with an approximate cost affixed to each one.

Per the cathedral’s website, they are:

  1. North Transept Façade (est. $1.2M): Repair the engaged buttresses and pinnacles on the façade of the north transept, enabling removal of scaffold protection at the entry to the Cathedral’s Administration Building. Summer 2016 completion.
  2. West Towers (est. $350K): Repair miscellaneous pinnacle damage at the tops of the two west towers.
  3. North Transept Buttresses (est. $1.6M): Repair and reinforce the engaged buttresses and pinnacles on the north transept not covered by the work in Part A.
  4. North Nave (est. $3M): Repair all engaged buttresses and pinnacles along the north nave.
  5. South Nave (est. $2.9M): Repair all engaged buttresses and pinnacles along the south nave.
  6. South Transept (est. $4.7M): Repair engaged buttresses, severely damaged grand pinnacles and damaged smaller pinnacles on the south transept façade.
  7. Great Choir South (est. $2.5M): Repair engaged buttresses and pinnacles clean and repoint masonry.
  8. Central Tower (est. $3.3M): Recarve portions of the four central tower grand pinnacles and restore remainder of center tower secondary pinnacles in order to remove very visible stabilization scaffold.
  9. Garth (est. $3.6M): Repair and reinforce engaged buttresses and pinnacles around garth garden so that it can be reopened.

In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed that the “work begun this noon.” However, it’s debatable whether or not anyone expected the work to take another 83 years. By the same token, it’s arguable as to whether President George H.W. Bush knew that in 1990, the “work completed this noon and the new work yet to begin” would include a significant amount of restoration and repair in the wake of a natural disaster.

The National Cathedral, even with the exception of the stabilization needed in the wake of the earthquake, is a testament to both the strength of masonry to stand the rest of time. Additionally, it’s proof that though there’s much to learn from the amazing structures around the world, we have our own American Treasures right in our own backyard.

Editor’s Note: We hope you enjoyed reading about the history and construction of the Washington National Cathedral. I know we all enjoyed the tour of the breathtaking building, and appreciate all the sweat equity that went into making it the majestic focal point of faith that it has become. Do you have any other National Treasures you’d like us to highlight? If so, send them our way and we’ll do our best to get them into an upcoming issue of Masonry.


American Treasures: The Washington National Cathedral

As you’ve learned from our Marvelous Masonry series, the structures created through the trade have a rich history and have stood the test of time. However, not all historic masonry is outside of the United States. In fact, one of the most storied buildings in the industry is based right in our nation’s capital, Washington D.C. The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, also known as the Washington National Cathedral, has been a focal point of faith for our country throughout the years.

The sixth largest in the world, the Washington National Cathedral’s construction started nearly 110 years ago in 1907. Then-president Theodore Roosevelt laid the cornerstone on September 29, 1907 and kicked off construction. However, likely no one assumed that the project would only be completed another 83 years later to the day.

Filled with rich history and years of hard work and manpower, the MCAA and Masonry had the privilege of touring the Washington National Cathedral with Joe Alonso, Head Stone Mason of the building and Jim Shepherd, Director of Preservation and Facilities. Thanks to Joe, Jim and everyone at the cathedral for giving us the opportunity to share information on this American Treasure with our readers. For more detailed information on the Washington National Cathedral, please visit their website at: www.cathedral.org.

The History and Construction

The idea behind the Washington National Cathedral came about during the time of our first President. The year was 1791, and George Washington worked with Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a military engineer who worked on the basic plan for Washington D.C., to envision a “great church for national purposes” to be used by everyone and not any particular religion or denomination.

On January 4, 1792, President Washington’s plans for D.C. ran in The Gazette of the United States, Philadelphia. The site that was originally intended for the church, Lot D, eventually became The National Portrait Gallery. It would eventually take about a century for any further developments on the church.

In 1893, the US Congress issued a charter and incorporated the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia, which allowed the construction for the place of worship and institutions of higher learning. In 1896, a new location was chosen for the cathedral, approximately four miles northwest of the original choice. Mount Saint Alban would serve as the site for the structure, which at 400 feet above sea level would cement the project’s place as a focal point for the city.

It wouldn’t be until September 29, 1907 that then-President Theodore Roosevelt laid the first stone for the project. Part of the stone was sourced from a location near Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, for symbolic purposes. The stone was placed into a larger piece of American-sourced granite, and inscribed is the Biblical verse “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”

With a project that took 83 years and cost an estimated $65 million, the Washington National Cathedral was clearly built to last. With a total weight of 300 million pounds and constructed in the English Gothic style of the 14 th century, one fact that may surprise our readers is that the structure does not use steel supports. Instead, artists, sculptors, and stone masons were brought in to achieve the classic look in a more modern era.

Built in the shape of a cross using Indiana limestone, the exterior of the cathedral features flying buttresses, intricate carvings, high arches, 112 gargoyles (including one in the shape of Darth Vader), and gutters large enough to walk through. The cathedral rises over 300 feet, and spans over 500 feet in length.

Built with private funds and receiving no money from the federal government nor the National Episcopal Church itself, construction had to be completed in phases over the past 83 years. The first part of the cathedral that was built was the Bethlehem Chapel, which still offers services to this day. It was placed atop the foundation stone at what is now considered the crypt level of the building.

The interior of the structure features a Medieval-inspired labyrinth designed to replicate the one in the nave of France’s Chartres Cathedral. Additionally, seven-story vaulted ceilings are a significant feature of the structure. Designed to transmit the weight of the roof and walls into the stone piers, the ceiling arches are capped by over 762 boss stones throughout the structure.

The work would eventually be completed in 1990, exactly 83 years after the date that the work first begun. Then-President George H.W. Bush attended the ceremony that saw the final finial placed on the west towers of the cathedral.

After its completion, the National Cathedral has hosted a variety of events and remembrances. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the cathedral held a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance Service on September 14, 2001. In 2004 after the death of former President Ronald Reagan, the cathedral was the site of his state funeral. Three years later in 2007, former President Gerald Ford’s state funeral was also held there. In 2009 and 2013, the church held the respective national prayer services for then-President Barack Obama. It has since hosted the national prayer service for President Donald Trump in 2017.

While the cathedral’s first few decades post-completion have been studded with several solemn and historic events, one in 2011 put the structure (and the masonry) to the test. The day was August 23, 2011, when a rare 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck at 1:51 pm.

The Earthquake

With an epicenter within the Piedmont area of Virginia, the quake is tied as the largest of its kind within the United States East of the Rocky Mountains. It caused several aftershocks of up to a 4.5 in magnitude, and was felt in over 10 states and neighboring Canadian provinces. Thankfully, only minor injuries and no deaths occurred as a result of the earthquake, but major damage was done to several buildings in the metropolitan area.

Unfortunately, the cathedral was one of those buildings. Several witnesses reported seeing elements of the structure shaking, twisting, and falling, according to Joe Alonso. He estimates that had the earthquake gone even seconds longer than the less-than-a-minute time it did, the damage could have been absolutely catastrophic both for the structure and those in and around the cathedral.

According to estimates, the destruction caused ranged from the $25 million to $34 million mark. On the cathedral’s website, the damages from the quake are highlighted.

  • The four grand pinnacles of the central “Gloria in Excelsis” tower rotated. Each grand pinnacle is over 40 feet tall, weighs about 50 tons, and is topped by a four-foot-tall grand finial that weighs about 500 pounds. Three of the four grand finials fell to the tower’s roof the top five courses of stone were shaken badly.
  • Additional smaller pinnacles atop the tower were badly damaged.
  • Dislodged stone struck a gargoyle and “decapitated” it. The gargoyle’s head was held in place only by the drainpipe that runs through the gargoyle to expel rainwater.
  • One grand pinnacle was so damaged that it cannot be removed until funds are in place for its restoration. It will remain encased in scaffolding until it can be repaired.
  • The grand pinnacles were so destabilized that workers could gently rock them back and forth on their bases.
  • Several pinnacles skipped up and rotated like spinning tops, and several slender pinnacles collapsed entirely.
  • The six freestanding flying buttresses of the east end—the oldest part of the cathedral—swayed or moved, causing the flying buttress arches to stretch and move, resulting in cracking and separation of stones from one another.
  • When construction began in 1907, there was no reinforcement used between stones. The seismic motion caused stones in the buttresses to shift and separate, and loosened and rotated the pinnacle stones.
  • Rotation and movement along almost every exterior pinnacle on the cathedral caused hundreds of spalled corners and stones (stones that have crumbled or flaked off), cracks, and fallen crockets and finials, requiring re-carving.

Immediately following the earthquake, the cathedral shut down from the Tuesday of the Earthquake to the Saturday of that weekend. A “Difficult Access Team” from the cathedral’s engineering firm was brought in to rappel along the cathedral and assess and document the issues that had occurred. Additionally, the in-house team, led by Joe Alonso, was brought in to assess the damage. After its completion, the repair and restoration work was broken into three phases: Immediate, Phase I, and Phase II.

Restoration Work

Immediately after the earthquake, the team primarily focused on securing the building and planning for future repairs. An added challenge was that the cathedral would remain open during the repair process. After the seismic event, cathedral leadership was able to raise around $2 million for the immediate repairs that would make the structure safe enough for the many visitors to enter the building.

Crews first installed 65 feet of scaffolding above the nave floor. This allowed crews to examine the vaulted ceilings and boss stones and provide any necessary cleaning. Falling debris would be caught through the installation of netting.

Outside the cathedral, the flying buttresses were the first place teams went. As the original buttresses did not have suitable reinforcement, teams drilled into them and installed steel rods around 25 feet in length. They were placed diagonally along the buttresses to provide stability in the event of another seismic event. Any pieces that fell or were shaken loose from the rooftops were secured, and many still sit in the same spot to this day.

Phase I of the restoration was funded by another $8 million, and concluded in June of 2015. The interior of the building looks like it never has before, with boss stones resembling what their original form. Decades of buildup were removed. Once again, the cathedral was safe for visitors. However, there is much more work to be done.

Jim Shepherd, the cathedral’s Director of Preservation and Facilities, estimates that even after the completion of the phase, there is still well over 85% of work left to do. Cracked buttresses need reinforcement, damaged and destroyed stonework needs to be recarved, the hand-carved finials of angels still aren’t at the tops of certain points of the building, and one decapitated gargoyle needs to be repaired of replaced.

The Central Tower’s scaffolding, still up to this day, is merely there to make sure that the building is safe. Currently, no active work is being done on that portion of the building until the necessary funds have been raised to complete the work.

Phase II of the project is going to be significantly costlier, with the cathedral’s own estimate being over $20 million. As such, this phase will take much longer than the first. The second phase of the project is so expansive that it has been broken into nine sub-phases with an approximate cost affixed to each one.

Per the cathedral’s website, they are:

  1. North Transept Façade (est. $1.2M): Repair the engaged buttresses and pinnacles on the façade of the north transept, enabling removal of scaffold protection at the entry to the Cathedral’s Administration Building. Summer 2016 completion.
  2. West Towers (est. $350K): Repair miscellaneous pinnacle damage at the tops of the two west towers.
  3. North Transept Buttresses (est. $1.6M): Repair and reinforce the engaged buttresses and pinnacles on the north transept not covered by the work in Part A.
  4. North Nave (est. $3M): Repair all engaged buttresses and pinnacles along the north nave.
  5. South Nave (est. $2.9M): Repair all engaged buttresses and pinnacles along the south nave.
  6. South Transept (est. $4.7M): Repair engaged buttresses, severely damaged grand pinnacles and damaged smaller pinnacles on the south transept façade.
  7. Great Choir South (est. $2.5M): Repair engaged buttresses and pinnacles clean and repoint masonry.
  8. Central Tower (est. $3.3M): Recarve portions of the four central tower grand pinnacles and restore remainder of center tower secondary pinnacles in order to remove very visible stabilization scaffold.
  9. Garth (est. $3.6M): Repair and reinforce engaged buttresses and pinnacles around garth garden so that it can be reopened.

In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed that the “work begun this noon.” However, it’s debatable whether or not anyone expected the work to take another 83 years. By the same token, it’s arguable as to whether President George H.W. Bush knew that in 1990, the “work completed this noon and the new work yet to begin” would include a significant amount of restoration and repair in the wake of a natural disaster.

The National Cathedral, even with the exception of the stabilization needed in the wake of the earthquake, is a testament to both the strength of masonry to stand the rest of time. Additionally, it’s proof that though there’s much to learn from the amazing structures around the world, we have our own American Treasures right in our own backyard.

Editor’s Note: We hope you enjoyed reading about the history and construction of the Washington National Cathedral. I know we all enjoyed the tour of the breathtaking building, and appreciate all the sweat equity that went into making it the majestic focal point of faith that it has become. Do you have any other National Treasures you’d like us to highlight? If so, send them our way and we’ll do our best to get them into an upcoming issue of Masonry.


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Special thanks are due to Diane Ney, Head Archivist at the Washington National Cathedral, for her steadfast help in locating the archival records that made this study possible. I would also like to thank Adam Minakowski of the Nimitz Library at the U.S. Naval Academy for his reference assistance. An early version of this article was presented at the Columbia Graduate Religion Conference in April 2018, during which I received invaluable feedback from Gale Kenny of Barnard College on how to improve the manuscript.


What is the Washington National Cathedral? (with pictures)

The Washington National Cathedral is located in Washington, D.C. in the United States. It is officially known as the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, and as the second largest cathedral in the United States, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It has played host to a score of historical events, including the funerals of four U.S. Presidents and countless memorials and remembrances. The Washington National Cathedral was built starting in 1907 and began services in 1912.

Plans for the Washington National Cathedral — in its nascent form, a church to service national purposes — date back to the eighteenth century when George Washington charged Major Pierre L'Enfant to plan the layout and function of the nation's capital. L'Enfant designed a place for national worship and envisioned a great cathedral. Though his original location did not end up being the final location for the Washington National Cathedral, the plans to build such a place were carried out over a century later. Today, the cathedral is a major tourist draw in the D.C. area in addition to the regular members who frequent the church.

While the cathedral opened only five years after initial construction began, the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul would be under construction for 83 years. Throughout its history, the cathedral has evolved physically but has remained an active place of worship throughout. The final phase of construction was completed in 1990 while President George H.W. Bush was in office. The cathedral is made from Indiana Limestone and is designed as a Gothic structure. It features several stained glass windows, flying buttresses, vaulted ceilings, and many arches throughout the building.Some specific materials came from other locations throughout the world, such as the stones in front of the altar, which came from Mount Sinai in Jerusalem.

Known as a National House of Prayer where all faiths are welcome, the Washington National Cathedral has played host to countless prayer services attended by United States Presidents and other prominent politicians and leaders from throughout the world. In times of national crises, the cathedral often becomes the focal point of national mourning, prayer, and worship. Memorial services were held there shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, and a memorial service was held shortly after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. He delivered his final sermon in the cathedral just days before his assassination.