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A Local Life: Peter 'Billy' Cleland, 88

A Local Life: Peter 'Billy' Cleland, 88; master stonemason

Peter "Billy" Cleland, above, master stonemason of Washington National Cathedral, with two grandsons, also stonemasons, Ray Cleland, left, and Billy Cleland Jr. At left, a younger Mr. Cleland stands behind President Harry S. Truman and Chief Justice Fred M. Vinson as the cornerstone is laid at the E. Barrett Prettyman Federal Courthouse in 1950. (Washington National Cathedral)
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By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 2, 2010

On Sept. 29, 1990, as President George H.W. Bush looked up from below, the final stone was set in place atop Washington National Cathedral. The intricately carved finial stone, weighing 1,008 pounds, was lifted by a crane to the cathedral's southwest tower, the finishing touch on a building that was begun 83 years earlier, to the day.

The man on the ground who secured that last stone in the crane's sling and sent it heavenward was Peter Cleland, the cathedral's master stonemason. For 18 years, he had supervised construction of the sixth-largest cathedral in the world.

As he circled his hand in the air to signal the crane operator above, Mr. Cleland could finally gaze up at a feat of workmanship that few others could have achieved. He followed a method of construction, stacking one individually cut stone upon another, with no reinforcing steel, that had changed little since the age of the great Gothic cathedrals. Each stone was set in place by human hands and rested on a bed of mortar spread with a mason's trowel.

Mr. Cleland, who was 88 when he died April 1 of multiple organ failure at a hospice in Harwood, was a careful man who spoke quietly and never let a word of profanity pass his lips. His Scottish-born father and grandfather, both named William Cleland, had been stonemasons before him. In keeping with family tradition, Mr. Cleland was known as "Bill" or "Billy," never as Peter, throughout his 49-year career.

"Billy had a reputation in D.C. with stonemasons that he was the master," said Joseph Alonso, who began working with Mr. Cleland in 1985 and is now the cathedral's mason foreman. "Billy was definitely the right man at the right time for this building."

Mr. Cleland led a small crew, seldom numbering more than 18, that at various times included his son and all four of his grandsons. In the heavy, exacting work of building in stone, he followed one guiding principle: "Take it slow, and get it right."

Only when the final stone was put in place could Mr. Cleland pronounce his job complete.

"It's the jewel in the Lord's crown," he said.

Two kinds of stone craftsmen worked at the cathedral during its long construction.

Stone carvers, the artisans who sculpted gargoyles, statues and intricate ornamental figures, may be better known because their work is instantly recognizable and because Marjorie Hunt's 1984 documentary about them won an Academy Award.

The other stone workers are the masons, who, in Alonso's words, "are the ones who put it all together." Their tools are simple and timeless: trowels, levels, squares and mallets covered in rawhide.

"Those tools have remained unchanged for hundreds and hundreds of years," Alonso said.

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