Stone by stone, repairs gain steam at Washington National Cathedral 6 years after earthquake

By David Paulsen
Posted Jan 2, 2018
Stone carvers at work

Stone carvers Andy Uhl, left, and Sean Callahan work on pieces of Washington National Cathedral that were damaged in the 2011 earthquake. Photo: Joe Alonso/Washington National Cathedral

[Episcopal News Service] The earthquake that struck the Washington, D.C., area in August 2011 caused an estimated $34 million in damage to Washington National Cathedral. More than six years later, less than half of those repairs are done, and the remaining work could take another decade to complete.

Progress is being made, however, and the Episcopal cathedral last month received a year-end donation from a foundation that will allow it to embark this spring on the next phase of repairs. This latest $1.5 million project will focus on the structure around an interior courtyard, which is the last part of the cathedral still closed to the public.

“It took 83 years to build this place. We’ve had scaffolding on the outside of our building more than we have not. In some ways, we’re kind of used to it,” said Kevin Eckstrom, the cathedral’s chief communications officer.

Washington National Cathedral west towers

Repairs to the west towers at the front entrance to Washington National Cathedral were completed in summer 2017. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

It remains a beautiful building and an iconic religious landmark in the U.S. capital, but Washington National Cathedral also is more than the stones that form it, Eckstrom said. “The staff and the leadership feel very strongly that what’s really important about the building is what goes on inside.”

The courtyard project is a prime example. Known as the garth, it features a fountain and a patio, and reopening it will allow it to be used for weddings, banquets and other gatherings. There also are separate plans to add a columbarium and memorial garden to the space.

The walls surrounding the courtyard aren’t the problem. It’s the two pinnacles above that rotated during the earthquake, causing pieces to fall onto the courtyard below.

“It’s just a lovely space, and it’s another entry into different parts of the cathedral,” said Joe Alonso, the cathedral’s head stone mason. “The northeast end of the cathedral is kind of looming over you.”

The work this spring is just one of nine projects, some completed and other pending, that make up the second phase of earthquake repairs. Phase 1, costing about $10 million, was completed in 2015, and it focused on the interior of the cathedral and on the largest and oldest buttresses toward the rear. The cathedral was fully closed for just three months in 2011, as crews completed stabilization work in time to reopen that November to host the installation of Diocese of Washington Bishop Mariann Budde.

The rest of the work is being completed as the money is raised through private donations.

“We are committed to finishing the earthquake repairs and returning this glorious building to its original grandeur,” Dean Randy Hollerith said in an emailed statement. “However, those repairs must not, and will not, come before the ministry and mission that happens here. The building is important, but it is just a vehicle for the more vital work of ministry. What happens on the inside is ultimately more important than what people see on the outside.”

Washington National Cathedral wide shot

Washington National Cathedral’s initial construction was completed in 1990, though it continued to need maintenance and restoration, even before being damaged by the 2011 earthquake. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

The cathedral is a solid masonry structure, so “the only thing that’s holding it together is gravity and physics and a whole lot of mortar,” Eckstrom said. As it is being repaired, stone by stone, crews are installing stainless steel rods between the stones to make the structure more resistant to the next major earthquake, if and when it strikes.

National Cathedral pinnacle reinstall

Crews in 2016 reinstall a pinnacle that was damaged in the earthquake. It was reinforced with the stainless steel rods. Photo: Colin Winterbottom/Washington National Cathedral

About 80 percent of the exterior of the cathedral still needs to be repaired. Some of the fixes have merely entailed reinforcing the structure, while other pieces of towers, pinnacles, buttresses and transepts have been damaged beyond repair and need to be replaced by carving new stone.

Alonso has worked at the cathedral since 1985 and was part of the final phase of its original construction, which was completed in 1990. The structure continued to need maintenance and restoration in subsequent years, but nothing like the aftermath of Aug. 23, 2011 when the magnitude 5.8 earthquake struck. It was centered 84 miles southwest of the cathedral near Mineral, Virginia.

“My God, the day of the earthquake, that was a punch in the gut,” Alonso said. He and his team, though, are making the most of their present work by cleaning and renovating parts of the cathedral that would not have been spruced up for years, such as the ceiling and the stained glass. “The access that we’re gaining with some of the earthquake work, we’re able to do some other needed repairs.”

The biggest repair project left is the central tower, which will cost an estimated $5 million to fix.

“When the quake hit D.C., the seismic waves went to the highest part of the city, which is the hill we’re sitting on,” Eckstrom said. “And they traveled up to the highest part of the building. … That happens to be our central tower.” A similar scenario occurred at the Washington Monument, which is expected to remain closed to the public until 2019.

The cathedral’s central tower is 300 feet, but its four grand pinnacles lost 20 to 30 feet of stonework when the stones fell or had to be removed. What remains is being stabilized with scaffolding until the repairs get the green light. If the cathedral were to receive enough money today to complete the project, it would take about three years, but this and the rest of the repairs on the list likely will stretch over the next decade.

National cathedral central tower

Scaffolding is seen on the central tower of Washington National Cathedral, which was damaged in a 2011 earthquake. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

Washington National Cathedral is one of only two cathedrals in the United States, and the only Episcopal cathedral, with an active stone shop, Eckstrom said, and Alonso and two stone carvers have been busy since the earthquake. The second phase kicked off with repairs to the cathedral’s north transept in spring 2016. Another project, fixing the iconic west towers at the front of the cathedral, was completed in spring 2017.

Old Testament prophet carvings

These carved faces of Old Testament prophets were part of a turret that was disassembled in summer 2017 and lowered to the ground until it can be repaired. Photo: Colin Winterbottom/Washington National Cathedral

One additional silver lining in the earthquake’s aftermath has been the opportunity to see parts of the cathedral that otherwise would be out of reach. That’s because they’ve been brought down to eye level for repairs.

Last year, a damaged turret 20 stories up had to be taken down and placed on the ground outside the cathedral, allowing for close inspection of its defining feature: the carved faces of eight Old Testament prophets.

The cathedral, unfortunately, has no record of which prophet is which, but “it really gives you a chance to see the craftsmanship that went into creating the building,” Eckstrom said.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


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Comments (9)

  1. P.J. Cabbiness says:

    I would encourage our entire denomination to financially support the restoration and improvements to this beautiful, historical and irreplaceable Cathedral. It is a national and religious treasure.

  2. Doug Desper says:

    I’ve been very conflicted about continuing financial support for the National Cathedral. I used to give during appeals. I stopped that when the Cathedral began hosting Muslim prayers in the Nave. It was done under the guise of “generosity” and in consideration of Islam being one of the “great Abrahamic religions”. That aside, Muhammad’s life and teaching would not pass today’s modern scrutiny if it were dispassionately applied. Muhammad “married” a child under the age of 10, kept multiple women as sex objects, and conquered and subjugated his neighbors by terror, bloodshed and slavery. You can view his 9 swords gained by and used in conquest in museums around the world. He was a Conquistador who plundered, abused, enslaved, and enforced unity to his philosophy by violence. The Muslim call to prayer ennobles him by saying, “Ashadu anna Muhammadan Rasool Allah”, meaning, “I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God”. Muhammad believed himself to be equal to Moses and Christ.

    This religion warns all non-Muslims to not approach Mecca. Road exit signs leading to that Muslim holy site will direct us to not come near due to the violence and possible death that may occur because “we” are there. Doesn’t seem like much has changed since the 7th century.

    That such a religion’s teachings are uttered in sight of Christ on the cross on the Rood Beam, and Christ in Majesty at the Altar as though there is any equality in these religions remains mystifying to me, no matter what excuse is made for it.

  3. Bruce Garner says:

    And so, via the words of Mr. Desper, goes the work of humanity in creating divisions among faith communities, particularly those that differ from our own. Remember that Jesus referenced “other” sheep than those with whom He ministered at the time? We have absolutely no way of knowing what the original intent of any of this really is. We approach the throne of God by grace and with humility. Who among us is in a position to determine anyone else’s path to God? None, but some sure try. As we say in these parts, “bless their hearts.”

  4. Doug Desper says:

    Bruce, the “other sheep” are to be brought into Christ’s fold, not be given voice in His House to deny His Incarnation nor to glorify a mass murderer who claimed that he was a prophet. Hospitality does not extend to heresy; or have we fallen just that far to not know the difference?

  5. Bruce Garner says:

    I suppose you had a conversation with Jesus about all of this? What about: “My house shall be a house of prayer for ALL people.” I have never seen anything to support a contention that there were any definitions or exceptions to “all people.”

    God dispenses blessings on all without checking our bona fides. God also knows when and how often we fall short of the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves. There weren’t any exceptions provided there either. Yet so many of us claim the mantle and judgement of God and create exceptions and conditions when none exist. And by the way, heresy is a human construct. I don’t recall it being mentioned in Scripture and I have read “the Book” all the way through at least a couple of times.

    If we spent as much energy and effort in loving God, loving neighbor, feeding the hungry, watering the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and in prison (all the list near the end of Matthew 25) as we do at parsing OUR interpretation of who is “in and who is out” just think how much less meanness there would be in our world….and in our church. Just sayin’

  6. Doug Desper says:

    Bruce, let me reverse it. Since when does the Church of Jesus Christ have permission to play host to a religion that denies his divinity, his Incarnation, and his saving acts? Since when does the Church get to place some version of Episcopal pinky-mild manners before the Lord’s own voice when he entrusted disciples to gather non-believers into his fold (notice not into an oblique and obscure mere belief in “God”). Reversing it further, how would modern sophisticated people react of there was a modern-day Mohammad who practiced wholesale murder and bloodshed and subjugated his neighbors by slavery, rape, and torture, all the while stating that he was God’s messenger and equal to Moses and Christ? Do not tell me that we would not be up in arms and protesting and wincing as his followers chanted “I bear witness that ______ is God’s messenger.” Islam and Christianity can never hold hands as a similar path. The denial of the Incarnation, denial of Christ’s saving acts, and the violence and bloodshed that Islam’s messenger perpetrated must be exactly what Jesus referred to when He told us to beware of false messiahs. No, Jesus didn’t whisper that to me, but I trust the Gospels.

    National Cathedral’s chosen motto of a House of Prayer for All People must draw a line about what it promotes. That motto from the Old Testament was in the context of inviting everyone to come to know Israel’s God; that many diverse people would come to the truth of that God. It was not an invitation to practice a pale religious sycretism under a big tent. Yes, anyone can come in and pray. Now does that mean that the cathedral must host organized Muslim worship? Since when did we become Unitarians who merely believe that there are many paths to God?

    I didn’t have a “conversation with Jesus” about all of this. I paid attention to what he said. The transcript is in the Gospels.

  7. I feel saddened by the above exchange …and find that there is a certain irony in having been directed to this page by Anglicans Online (http://anglicansonline.org/news/index.html) where we are also pointed by another adjacent link (https://www.sightmagazine.com.au/news/8490-england-s-anglican-cathedrals-play-a-key-role-in-bringing-communities-together-report-finds) to an English report on the contemporary “key role” of Cathedrals in ‘bringing communities together’
    Despite the vitriol of both parties above…we forget that while “Christian worship is still at the heart of what cathedrals do”. Cathedrals also belong to the communities which share them; and which very often also generously support them.
    I happen to live in a city, Adelaide South Australia, where the Anglican Cathedral dominates the cityscape. It is known around the world (perhaps less so in the Americas!) because it beams around the world when ever Test Cricket is broadcast …and for decades the playing field has shown the iconic “Cathedral End”. Our witness is both subtle and beautiful, and known around the world.
    This Cathedral does indeed belong to the little flock of pilgrim Anglicans; it does belong to the City of Adelaide (like everywhere we have Buddhists, Presbyterians, Catholic, Jews, Muslims…Indigenous Australians, Agnostics and Atheists…to mention but a few.)
    I am just happy that even if it were destroyed the stones would still cry out [Luke 19:39-41]
    I rabbit on.
    Think Mr Desper’s characterisation of Islam is simplistic…my goodness if you condemn Islam for violence and cruelty …how do you rate Christianity/Buddhism/Hinduism/Atheism (John 8:7 & 1John 1:8)

    Cathedrals can, could and should be places of reconciliation. May the National Cathedral continue to be so

  8. Doug Desper says:

    Stephan, your idea that cathedrals can bring communities together is excellent. However, for real unity to happen there must be truth-telling. Pointing out the vast historic and philosophical differences of Islam and Christianity is not creating the division, but instead revealing claims that can’t be negotiated away to achieve a false equivalency. You say that I am simplistic. That’s true. In the same way that the Lord said, “You shall know them by their fruits….” and “beware of false messiahs..” one with working eyes and ears can see two distinct paths.

    Christians can take anyone of a tour of the cathedral and tell the whole story of the life of Jesus and not leave anything out, and in the end will have told the whole truth and not been dishonest or ashamed. There’s the first difference. ANYone can enter a Christian space. Not true of Islam. You will be most likely be killed if you go as a non-Muslim observer to Mecca. The second difference is that we can tell the whole story of Jesus and not be ashamed. Islam calls Muhammad “the messenger” therefore he is not peripheral or optional, but instead the vehicle to know truth. However, many fail to learn or tell the truth about Muhammad. We have to remain in silence about his violent life so as to not offend – and in doing so we perpetuate a lie. We can tell how Jesus healed, loved, elevated women, and rejected violence. Conversely Muhammad ordered his men to make a victim’s death as slow and agonizing as possible. In one case, his men literally pulled apart the body of an elderly woman named Umm Qirfa by tying her limbs to camels then sent in opposite directions. We cannot have honesty and respect with Islam when we have to ignore their insistence that such a person is God’s “messenger”. At best that relationship is dysfunctional and a lie. We can eat, talk, and learn together with Muslims, but for Christians to invite Muslims to worship and praise the name of Muhammad in a place consecrated to Jesus Christ is dishonest and a false unity.

  9. Tony Oberdorfer says:

    Doug Desper is absolutely right as he has often been before. His viewpoint is just plain common sense and it is sad that no one else has offered him support. It seems that more and more sensible Episcopalians have simply given up their church interest in disgust.

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