Back to previous page


Post Most

Earthquake-damaged Washington National Cathedral needs to raise millions

By ,

Washington National Cathedral will need to raise millions of dollars to repair its elaborate limestone exterior, officials said Wednesday, a day after an earthquake snapped off three of the four towering spires that are the highest and most visible points in the District.

Engineers and stone masons at the 300-foot-high cathedral said their initial inspection revealed no structural damage to the building, which serves as a symbolic worship space for high-profile public events. But head mason Joe Alonso said at a news conference Wednesday that repairs would run into “the millions, no doubt about it.”

The cathedral’s insurance policy does not cover earthquake damage, a spokesman said.

An interfaith service for 3,000 people that had been planned Saturday to mark the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial was moved from the cathedral to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Northeast Washington.

Cathedral officials said they need to check and stabilize the hundreds of limestone angels and smaller spires and other figures on the cathedral’s exterior to ensure that nothing falls. Three days of events around the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks remain scheduled to go forward.

Details of a repair budget were not immediately known. The cathedral has recently undergone a period of intense budget-cutting. Several years ago, its staff was cut from 170 to 70 and spending was slashed in half after its endowment plunged amid the economic slowdown. An official said Wednesday that the last year has seen strong fundraising.

In addition to the enormous spires, or pinnacles, atop the cathedral’s main tower, at least a few smaller spires and angels appeared to have cracked.

Wedged deep into the grass, where hundreds of tourists walk on a typical day, was a finial, or spire top, that had plummeted hundreds of feet in Tuesday’s earthquake.

“They are all works of art, done by hand,” Alonso said of the cathedral’s British Gothic exterior.

There are nearly 700 angels alone, as well as other creatures and embellishments.

The cathedral is closed until at least Saturday. It typically attracts about 300 tourists a day and holds three daily worship services during this time of year.

The most dramatic damage from the quake was at the top, to the pinnacles on the central tower. Three of the four had their tops snapped off and the fourth was knocked out of alignment, like a cake whose layers had slid and were off balance.

Standing on the roof Wednesday, Alonso, who has worked at the cathedral for nearly 30 years, said it was difficult to see the place littered with toppled pillars and chunks of angels and limestone fragments. Alonso was one of three people atop the cathedral when its final stone was set in 1990.

“It’s just surreal,” he said. Part of a three-member mason crew, Alonso said the workers spent four years in the 1990s shoring up the central tower’s roof, including repointing and drilling pins into the spires that eventually fell. “I felt so good about what we did. I figured it was set for decades.”

The cathedral was built in phases from 1907 to 1990. Jim Cutts, a structural engineer who worked for years on the cathedral and was on the roof Wednesday as a consultant, said he was daunted by the idea of finding a way to repair such massive pieces so high up.

This is “way the heck of a logistics problem,” he said.

© The Washington Post Company