Attending the Holy Eucharist and seating of Bishop Mariann Budde on Sunday, November 13, a young boy named Luca was excited to be back in the National Cathedral. Following ten weeks of closure, the Cathedral reopened that weekend for the first time since an earthquake on August 23 wrought significant damage to this national treasure. But Luca was most excited about meeting the Cathedral’s head stone mason, Joe Alonso. The boy was part of a pre-school class that had written Alonso a letter of appreciation.
Alonso attended the same service with his family, and the boy was delighted to meet the man who is now charged with seeing years of work to restore the National Cathedral and the damage it sustained in the quake.
“There’s a lot to do, but it’s great to see the Cathedral open and full of people again. It felt good to be sitting in the service and to see the Cathedral being used for what it was meant to be used for,” said Alonso during an interview with Cathedral Age.
Joined by Sean Callahan and Andy Uhl, who double as Cathedral masons and stone carvers, Alonso worked with engineers and architects over two months to stabilize damaged stonework on the Cathedral’s exterior. In total, 45 pieces of large stone were removed from the grand pinnacles of the central tower alone by a massive construction crane. Additionally, two intermediate pinnacles were removed from the west front towers, as were numerous stones from the south transept. Damaged intermediate pinnacles in the central tower and the damaged southwest pinnacle of the south transept were secured with scaffolding surrounding them.
“Now I’m catching my breath and thinking, ‘OK, we got that part done.’ Now we can start looking at the next phase,” Alonso said. “I feel good about where we are right now. I walk around here and think, ‘Wow; a lot of people got a lot of work done in a very short amount of time.’”
Alonso, who serves as mason foreman, will take on more of an administrative role over the winter, collaborating with the Cathedral’s engineers and architects to document all of the earthquake damage. Where new stone is required for replacing damaged portions, total counts will need to be determined before ordering replacement stone from the mills quarrying limestone in Indiana.
Some original drawings depicting how the central tower grand pinnacles were constructed have been found, which will assist the team in restoring these pinnacles.
Where original drawings can’t be found, Alonso, Callahan, and Uhl will produce templates: “I can envision this winter counting stones, ordering stones, looking for drawings, and making patterns,” Alonso projects. “Where we don’t have the drawings, it’s easier to measure the stones in place and make templates to be able to re-cut new stones.
“A lot of planning will take place this winter so that by the spring and summer we’ll be in a position to begin the reconstruction. The timing is good in that we had the fall weather to do what we needed to do outside, and now the central tower is battened down for the winter.”
Engineers will also be considering what steps can be taken during restoration to reinforce the delicate stonework to mitigate the impact on the Cathedral should another seismic event occur.
While Alonso focuses on documentation, Callahan and Uhl will be busy carving. The Cathedral’s two stone carvers are already assessing which pieces of stone can be salvaged and which will need to be completely re-carved. In many cases, with the goal of preserving as much of the original stonework and carving as possible, the “Dutchman repair” technique will be used, in which sections of stone that are damaged are cut out, new pieces of stone are fit into the resulting holes, and the whole piece carved to the original contours and design. The new pieces are secured using stainless steel pins and a special epoxy.
The three damaged finials from the central tower grand pinnacles are examples of parts that will need to be completely re-carved. Three of the four finials there toppled during the quake and were damaged too severely to be salvaged. The fourth finial survived, fortunately, and will serve as a model for the new 600-pound-each finial stones to be re-carved by Callahan and Uhl.
Another piece to be re-carved is the “fallen angel,” whose image in news media and Cathedral materials was circulated across the country as the symbol of the Cathedral’s earthquake damage.
Alonso is recommending carving a new one and using the original angel as its model. “It has become so iconic and well known. I wonder if she should be kept on display forever to remind people of the earthquake,” he said.
Visitors to the Cathedral can see the fallen angel currently encased in an exhibit showcasing the earthquake’s damage, “Though the Earth Be Moved,” in the rare book library exhibit room.
“It is going to take a long time and a lot of support from our friends to see this through,” says Alonso. “While the work ahead is not on the same scale as the original construction, it will take the same spirit of support to be successful.”