Even when you take a long view, cathedrals are long-term endeavors; that’s both the wonder and the tragedy of the earthquake that struck a year ago, which took only a matter of moments to do its damage. Although it’s hard to grasp Washington National Cathedral in numbers alone—83 years of construction, 150,000 tons of stone, a site of nearly 60 acres—its obvious scope and scale are providing valuable guidance for the building’s ongoing earthquake restoration.

Restoration is currently projected to cost at least $20 million and to take years to complete, proceeding in tandem with another $30 million of deferred maintenance and long-term preservation needs. The needs are urgent—cutting corners would be tempting. Yet the individuals involved have maintained high standards as well as high resolve. Avoiding the allure of “quick fixes” to the national treasure in their care, they are committed to work that can stand the test of time.

Unprecedented Damage

The earthquake that closed Washington National Cathedral to the public for ten weeks began about 1:50 pm on August 23, 2011—just over a year ago—in the small town of Mineral, Va. Within moments, however, the tremor felt as far north as Canada began shaking the Cathedral. The shockwaves’ widening amplitude induced a sort of whiplash effect that became more pronounced as the seismic energy raced up the perpendicular lines of the central “Gloria in Excelsis” tower, completed in 1963.

Here, 300 feet above the most commanding hill in the District of Columbia—Mount St. Alban, another 300 feet above the Potomac—the tremor was pronounced enough to break 40-foot grand pinnacles that form the city’s highest point. Huge pieces six feet tall and four feet wide, weighing more than two tons apiece, were flung down with potentially deadly force—although most collapsed inward onto the tower’s reinforced concrete roof. Bells rang as airplane cables in the tower’s carillon snapped, but the great weight of the peal bells helped stabilize swaying stone. The Cathedral’s three stonemasons were luckiest of all, having chosen to work that day on the ground level rather than up on a tower as planned. When they climbed up on the scaffolding after the earthquake to inspect the damage, they found it littered with fist-sized pieces of broken stone that (had they been there) would have rained down on them.

As Cathedral leaders and interested onlookers walked around the building’s perimeter, peering intently for any signs of damage they could find, no one could have guessed the extent of destruction that would reveal itself at the top of the building’s three towers. An early sign of concern, though, came from seeing cracks in the flying buttresses supporting the building’s historic apse at the east end: as it turned out, the slight variance in construction styles from 1907 to 1990 would make a huge difference in the extent and type of damage that occurred. A few stones that flew outward pierced thick lead plating on lower roofs, while one heavy pointed fragment that did reach the ground embedded itself a few feet deep. Inch-by-inch inspections later increased the tally, soon reading like a litany for irreplaceable handiwork by generations of carvers and craftsmen—among them Constantine Seferlis (1930–2005), whose career highlights included restoring Washington’s iconic Dupont Circle fountain.

Hidden Blessings

These losses from the earthquake were painful, and the aftermath was challenging, but hidden blessings continued to reveal themselves. A hurricane approaching days later changed course slightly and only grazed the Cathedral as a tropical storm, doing minimal damage. Two weeks after that, the largest active crane in the United States at the time collapsed on site—it was being used to erect a platform on top of the central tower—but avoided potentially catastrophic contact with the Cathedral itself as it fell. Staff who scrambled to put the finishing touches on a weekend of concerts and other tenth-anniversary commemorations for the attacks of September 11, 2001, were heartened by the hospitality of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and nearby Washington Hebrew Congregation where events relocated. Encouraging contributions from a range of faith communities, including $25,000 from the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington led by Donald Cardinal Wuerl, signified a broad base of support for a place that, as Wuerl noted, “holds a special place in the hearts of all of us in Washington,” and which “so many recognize … as a national house of prayer.”

Another hidden blessing was the Cathedral’s adoption in April 2011 of a strategic plan for the triennium 2012–2014, which for perhaps the first time in a generation matched intensive self-study based on reliable empirical data with a clear-eyed view of the means necessary to achieve excellence in what have historically been important roles for the National Cathedral. Although the strategic plan was obviously not written with last fall’s earthquake in mind, its formulation made for an important first step in addressing the challenges of a new era of its life—the motivation to build replaced by the need to preserve the building’s service for new generations.

Moreover, visitors are quick to discover that the Cathedral’s interior remains safe and structurally sound for the worship, concerts, lectures, and other events that give it life. On the interior, fine black netting installed beneath vaulting high up in the nave remains mainly as a precaution. On the exterior, meanwhile, the broken stones themselves mutely plead their cause. Crowned with scaffolding, the three towers offer a challenge to make whole a landmark recently recognized by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as a “national treasure.” Restoration provides a rare, concrete opportunity to advance the Cathedral’s roles as a space for welcome, inspiration, and perspective.

Careful Craftsmanship

The Cathedral stonemasons’ rare perspective was perhaps the greatest blessing of all. Despite enormous damage high up to architectural elements that can only be found on Gothic cathedrals, the three-man team had the background and skills to make knowledgeable and immediate judgments. The team is led by Joe Alonso, mason foreman, who set the Cathedral’s “final finial” stone on the southwest tower on September 29, 1990, crowning 83 years of construction. Along with colleagues Sean Callahan and Andy Uhl, Joe suspected that the Cathedral remained structurally sound after the earthquake. The engineering inspectors’ official verdict still came as profound relief.

For Joe, who has worked on and around the National Cathedral for the past 26 years, the old-world craft of stonework is practically in his blood: his father was trained as a coal miner and mason in northern Spain near Santa Maria de León Cathedral. “He was a very good mason at that,” Joe recalls. “He did beautiful work; growing up in Gary, Ind., I used to accompany him to masonry jobs on the weekends.” The family moved near Washington during Joe’s high school years, giving Joe the chance to join the prestigious local Stonemasons Union and to learn the trade from masons at the height of their careers. When he ultimately arrived at the Cathedral, he had the good fortune to work under “legends in the craft,” such as master masons Billy Cleland and Isidoro Flaim. “They saw to it that everything was done just right so that it could last through the ages,” he says, “and it took a lot of learning even though I was an experienced mason, because this large cut stone work just isn’t done that much anymore. But they were great teachers.”

Callahan and Uhl, the two carvers on the team, were taught their craft at the Cathedral from the great Vincent Palumbo (1936–2000). “It takes years to learn how to carve all of these Gothic architectural elements,” Joe observes. “Very few masons if any have Sean and Andy’s skill or talent, and I know all the restored pieces they make will be absolutely true to the originals.”

Expert knowledge of this sort, along with professional connections forged over decades of work at the Cathedral, proved valuable when Joe called two respected figures from the Cathedral’s history after the earthquake: Anthony Segreti, architect of the Cathedral during the construction of the west end, and James Madison Cutts, structural engineering consultant starting in the early 1960s. Segreti connected the Cathedral with the firm of Keast & Hood; Cutts was soon in touch with Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. (WJE). Those firms joined in performing the detailed assessment of the seismic damage, with WJE taking the lead on compiling the data and the final report. As at the Washington Monument, the WJE “Difficult Access Team” performed a rappelling inspection of the Cathedral’s exterior as part of the process. Universal Builders Supply was called in to provide scaffolding and rigging for the stabilization effort. Along with Andrew J. Hullinger, the Cathedral’s senior director for finance and administration, Joe proved an able translator to the public of the specialized information provided by the firms in a first-ever preservation webinar on August 29, 2011.

A Monumental Task

Fully restoring the Cathedral will certainly take time: several years, even if all necessary funds were already at hand today. Gothic buildings are not only slow to build but large, tall, and complex. Every stone exterior element must fit, and each must be carved by hand. Just one of the small rain-deflecting grotesques damaged in the quake—such as the angel carving at President Obama’s podium during the September 11 tenth-anniversary Concert for Hope—would take about 50 hours for a master like Uhl or Callahan to recarve. Stone-on-stone construction further compounds the difficulty, as not all the broken pieces jut out prominently for easy removal like gargoyles or crockets. A very simple cracked block that might take no time to patch or replace might lie several “courses,” or layers, beneath unharmed pieces of stone: each stone above must be removed—then lowered hundreds of feet to the ground—for crews to access any damaged piece.

Helping the Cathedral to face the complex work ahead is the Restoration Task Force. The task force is a small group comprised of current and former governance members and outside consultants, with a broad range of expertise in construction, structural engineering, project management, insurance, and related areas. “I cannot thank the task force members enough for their depth of knowledge and dedication during this challenging time,” Hullinger says. Over the past year, the group has overseen post-earthquake stabilization efforts; repairs to the Herb Cottage, Bishop’s Garden, and South Road in the aftermath of the crane collapse; and the development of a comprehensive list of the required restoration, preservation, and maintenance work that lies ahead.

Prioritization of this future work is the group’s final task. “Having knowledge of the order in which this work needs to be done, along with the estimated costs to complete that work, gives us critical information for project planning and provides us with the information we need to raise necessary funds to proceed,” Hullinger notes. “We are grateful for the members’ gifts of time and talent to make these efforts possible.”

Hullinger also shares the Cathedral’s profound gratitude for individuals and groups across the country, including the National Cathedral Association (NCA), whose assistance has already helped the Cathedral prepare for a new phase dedicated to active earthquake damage repairs, infrastructural maintenance, and long-term preservation.

A Transformative Gift

The restoration effort made a promising step forward on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake, as Washington National Cathedral announced the receipt of a major grant for $5 million from the Lilly Endowment Inc. of Indianapolis, Ind. One of the Endowment’s primary goals is to support efforts that “deepen and enrich” the cause of faith in America—a legacy that has included the construction effort for the National Cathedral and now continues with preservation.

Canon Kathleen A. Cox, executive director and chief operating officer, joined Interim Dean Frank Wade to express the Cathedral’s appreciation for the grant. “The Lilly family’s interest in American faith is well known, including a gift that enabled the construction of the Cathedral’s northwest St. Peter Tower,” Cox observed. “A year after the earthquake, as we seek to preserve the building for the future, the Endowment’s significant restoration gift acknowledges the importance of a new phase in the Cathedral’s life.” Wade concurred. “Day by day, the Cathedral pursues harmony in our nation, renewal in the churches, reconciliation among faiths, and compassion in our world,” he said. “That founding vision will continue to guide us. But preservation is essential for the Cathedral’s work to endure.”

Cathedrals are meant to stand for millennia, but they cannot stand alone. As both necessary repair work and ministry continue, it’s important to remember how much the National Cathedral has depended (and will depend) on generations of steadfast support. Fortunately, as the Lilly Endowment and others across the country are recognizing, the connection between the building and its mission remains crystal clear: repair a stone—and help to repair your world.