WASHINGTON — Stone masons working in thick fog at the top of the Washington National Cathedral on Thursday removed 2 tons of stonework from a pinnacle damaged by the August earthquake.
A worker standing on scaffolding atop the 330-foot central t
ower gave directions by radio to a crane operator below to carefully lower the section of hand-carved stonework. Within minutes, it was on the ground.
Three of the four pinnacles on the central tower, which date to 1963, were severely damaged in the 5.8-magnitude earthquake on Aug. 23. The 2-ton section removed Thursday had shifted about 8½ inches off its base during the earthquake, hanging over the edge of the lower portion of the pinnacle. The 4-foot-tall top portions of the pinnacles, called the finials, fell off during the earthquake and crashed onto the cathedral roof.
Joseph Alonso, the cathedral’s head stone mason, said he has been working since then to remove all loose stones so the gothic cathedral can safely reopen. It has been closed since the earthquake but is scheduled to reopen for the first time Nov. 12.
“I never dreamed we’d be reconstructing parts of this building again,” said Alonso who has worked at the cathedral for 26 years and helped finish its construction. “It’s sad this is happening.”
The cathedral was completed in 1990 after 83 years of work. Since the first stone was laid in 1907, the cathedral has become “one big piece of sculpture,” he said, because so many of its details were hand carved.
Repairing it has proven to be a complex task. It could take as long as 10 years, Alonso said. In one area, he must remove 48 heavy stones just to reach 32 damaged stones below.
Dozens of hand-carved stones were damaged in the earthquake, and mortar holding some sections together was broken loose. More damaged stones and sections of another pinnacle on the central tower will be removed through today.
Some damaged pieces will be sent to stone mills in Indiana to be replicated with matching limestone, Alonso said. Much of the original limestone for the cathedral came from Indiana.
Next week, a team of rappelling engineers who recently inspected the Washington Monument’s earthquake damage is scheduled to begin inspecting the cathedral’s many intricate carvings up close.
Scaffolding likely will remain in place around parts of the cathedral for years to come. It was installed by a New York firm that built scaffolding around the Washington Monument and the Statue of Liberty for their most recent renovations.
Before the earthquake, Alonso had been part of the group that completed the cathedral’s construction and was working to maintain and improve the building. Now his attention has shifted to finding ways to reinforce the building during repairs, in case of another rare East Coast quake.
“We’re going to have to learn from what happened here and hopefully make it a little more earthquake resistant,” he said.
The cathedral has announced a campaign to raise $25 million by the end of 2012. At least $15 million of that would fund the initial repairs. The remaining funds would support the cathedral’s operating budget, which has suffered in the economic downturn.
“There’s no way to know at this time how much total money will need to be raised to restore the building fully,” spokesman Richard Weinberg said. “We’re thrilled that people are stepping forward to help.”