The lights went down and slides flashed up on the screen. An unfinished nave. Scaffolding rising up to nothingness. Men in old-fashioned hard hats. Decades of work in limestone and brick.
Some names came easily to the crowd yesterday. There were the architects, the master carvers, the legendary figures of the massive project that everyone there had contributed to -- the creation and completion of Washington National Cathedral. But then there were the others in the pictures, the workmen lugging and balancing, the ones whose identities were hard to retrieve. Voices rose up from the audience in the cathedral auditorium.
"Isn't that the Scotchman who had such a brogue no one could understand him -- the only one who could understand him was Queen Elizabeth when she came to visit?"
"Isn't that Henry?"
"Nah! He never worked!"
Laughter. "The true voice of the builder!" someone said.
Downstairs the choir was at practice, setting the pristine air quivering. Older women wore purple robes and, with well-coiffed Episcopal manners, greeted visitors. The flowers outside the entrance where President Bush will arrive today for the consecration had managed to survive one night and one morning. Donors to the cathedral wandered the grounds, a sea of blue blazers and flannel pants.
Soon the 150 or so sculptors and masons and engineers and carpenters and wrought-iron workers and stained-glass fabricators would walk to the nave and line up in a solemn procession of celebration. But now they were congratulating themselves for the work they had done and the careers they had spent. It was a bittersweet reunion.
"It's something you want to see completed, but still you don't want to see it end," Roger Morigi was saying. Morigi, trained in his craft at home in northern Italy, worked on the cathedral for 25 years and was master carver when he retired in 1978. "You detach yourself from something that's been dear to you all your life."
He jerked up his shoulders in a shrug, a gesture of acceptance that was brisk but not without a note of mourning.
"So!" he said. "You leave and say goodbye!"
One cathedral official described the feeling this way: The fun, he said, was over. The excitement of watching a building begun in 1907 grow, the dust and flecks of stone and cranes and 12-ton bells climbing through the air on their way to the tower -- all that had given way to an age of maintenance. A worthy age no doubt, but maintenance -- not creation.
Over and over during the day people would say today's placement of the final stone marks the end of an age for them too. Sandra Hynson, the head of the Altar Guild for 17 years and a volunteer for almost 40, is leaving her flowers and vases for retirement. After overseeing construction since 1957, Richard Feller is leaving as canon clerk of the works, a title that dates from the 13th century.
And carver and sculptor Constantine Seferlis will now spend his days ensuring that the original Smithsonian building does not crumble into dust.
"It's a wonderful feeling," Seferlis said of the completion. "For a professional, I guess, we jump from one project to another, but if we see something like this, we look back and say we have left something behind."
At the reunion there was pride, both personal and familial. At one point a young, elegant woman in red stood up.
"Excuse me. My grandfather did all the statues but the centerpiece on the main altar," she said in gently accented English. She was greeted by applause. "That's not for me but my grandfather," said Susan Maria Lualdi, granddaughter of Angelo Lualdi.
She met Morigi and his wife, Louise. Other families came as well. The daughter and granddaughter of cathedral architect Philip Hubert Frohman -- "Mr. Frohman," he is called here by those who remember him well -- were there. Francis Sayre, dean of the cathedral from 1951 to 1978 and grandson of Woodrow Wilson (who is buried on the site), came to greet the artisans, to tell them a few ministerial anecdotes and offer his thanks.
"I remember visiting the carving sheds," he said. "It looked dusty. It looked like stone and nothing much more, but I found among the people as they mixed their dust into the mortar that every one of them believed in what they did, had a vision of what they were doing, what it was for, why you would build a cathedral in the nation's capital."
The place has attracted that sort of devotion. Sandra Hynson and her husband, Richard, have volunteered at the cathedral since their marriage in the early '50s, following his family's tradition. Through the years she has become a local legend, writing books and teaching classes on the flower arrangements that grace the altars.
Unlike the stone carvers', hers is an ephemeral creation. "You know you will spend four hours doing the high altar, and in four days it will come down and never be again. But it is the beauty of that arrangement accenting the cross that adds to the worship."
But she has left a more permanent mark on the cathedral. On the west end there is a stone carving of her favorite cathedral vase, filled with her favorite flowers -- gerbera daisies.
That stone, and three others commemorating her husband and his parents, were a gift from the Hynsons. The cathedral is a stone testimonial to the massive and decades-long fund-raising effort that made it possible. Walls, stones, bricks, chairs -- they are all inscribed with the names of donors. Constantine Seferlis remembers being approached by a dentist who wanted to honor his profession with a carving.
"He said, 'I'd like something as a memorial,' " Seferlis remembered. " 'I want a tooth with a cavity.' I said, 'A tooth with a cavity! Let me think about it.' I'd like to have done a dentist at work, but it's hard to show somebody working in a mouth. Teeth are a very small thing. You might think it was a doctor working on the throat. So I decided to exaggerate it -- a dentist working on a walrus's tusk."
The dentist did not find the image appealing, but Seferlis's boss did, and so he carved the piece and it found its way into the building.
"That was a funny moment," Seferlis said, meditating on the sometimes eccentric requests of the moneyed. "There are some more we try to keep secret."
Seferlis worked on the cathedral for 18 years, designing and carving gargoyles, flowers and the whole universe of decoration that is at the heart of Gothic architecture. It was a job that meant something, he said, the sort of job that inspired him and reminded him of the glorious architecture he grew up with in Athens, Greece.
"If you live in Athens and beneath the archaeological museum, under the shadow of the Acropolis, there's no way you can't be serious," he said. Those people who are not serious disgust him. The workman who looked the other way while hoisting a bar past one of his carved flowers and broke off a leaf, the ones who think only of their paychecks, are not the sort of craftsmen he knows a cathedral like this merits.
"It's a lack of civilization," he said of the attitudes of the careless. "Always I say if you want classical greatness, it has to be a cooperation. If you look at the Parthenon you don't see one mason, one carver. A cooperation of every side is the only way to accomplish."
Seferlis and Morigi have spoken about their love affairs with the cathedral many times through the years as reporter after reporter and visitor after visitor became entranced with the artisans working on the church. A nostalgic disbelief animates those who pay attention to these men and others like them who have worked here and at the still-incomplete St. John the Divine in New York. They seem like messengers from another era, the honest craftsmen who were already romanticized figures by the time Victorian critics looked back on medieval architecture.
Here in this sparkling new rendition of a 1,000-year-old style, Seferlis and Morigi themselves sound nostalgic for the craftsmen they studied under decades ago and for the world they grew up in.
"In Italy we have no resources," Morigi said. "The only thing we have is blue sky, blue water and a lot of stone."
And then he was talking about the strictness of parents in Italy, the closeness of families, the laxness of American discipline. He was firm, almost fierce, a small, strong man with strong ideas, and all of them seemed, as he spoke, to grow somehow out of this cathedral, out of the work and the stone and the life spent at such work.
Jay Carpenter listened to the man who taught him how to carve and smiled. "He was a real hothead in those early days," Carpenter said after Morigi left. "He was feared and respected."
Carpenter first saw Morigi 17 years ago, when as a student at St. Albans School he watched the craftsmen from the windows of his classes and yearned to do what they did. "I became completely fascinated by how they were able to take stone and just breathe life into it."
So he designed a gargoyle and showed it to Morigi; the master carver approved, assigning one of his men to carve the design for the cathedral. In summers and then after he finished art school, Carpenter kept coming back to the cathedral and was taken on as an apprentice, and then as a sculptor. Now he has other work, but he has returned for this weekend.
"It's like sending a child off to school," he said, "except this child has many parents."