Vincent Palumbo is lonely in his workshop these days. For years the simple three-room structure on the grounds of the Washington Cathedral held up to a dozen stone carvers chiseling away at limestone blocks to create timeless stone carvings using beautifully sculptured clay models.
After nearly 30 years, Palumbo is alone, the cathedral's master and only carver.
At a dedication ceremony Sept. 29, the Grand Finial, a 1,008-pound ornamental stone carved by Palumbo, will be placed atop St. Paul's Tower, and the cathedral will be declared finished, exactly 83 years after the foundation stone was set in place.
The ceremony will mark the end of an era for Palumbo, 54, though he will continue to work at the cathedral as a consultant. He hopes to finish out his career there, one he began as an ambitious 9-year-old who helped his father and grandfather in the family shop in Molfetta, Italy. He is continuing a craft that has been in his family for five generations.
"So that I wouldn't bother him, my father would give me a hammer and chisel to make me think I was doing something important," Palumbo said. "I would watch them and play around with the stone. This would go on for weeks, months and years until one day I find out it's not for play anymore."
When he arrived in the United States in 1961, Palumbo had a few short assignments, including restoring a statue at Dupont Circle and carving inscriptions at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Then he went to the cathedral, where for more than five years he worked side by side with his father, Paul.
The two were working on an elaborately carved stone, or boss, inside the cathedral, more than 280 feet above the ground, when Vincent Palumbo learned a valuable lesson.
The biblical scene involved the carving of intricate flowers, which the Palumbos needed to finish quickly. Vincent asked his father for help chiseling the tiny stamens and petals, but Paul told his son that he would not always be there to help him and that he must learn to do such things for himself. It was the last project they worked on together. Paul Palumbo died shortly after.
"Of five generations, my father was the one who reached the highest plateau," Vincent Palumbo said. "He was a sculptor, real artistic. My grandfather was more of an architect. I combined both skills. They were my school, and I learned two trades in one."
Sculptors, who carve the original design, are considered the artists and the carvers, following the sculptors' models, are craftsmen.
The Creation, a three-part sculpture by Frederick Hart, was carved by Palumbo over the three doorways of the cathedral's main entrance. Hart is famous for his statue of three soldiers at the Vietnam Memorial.
Although the sculptors have designed most of the ornamentation inside the cathedral, the carvers were given considerable freedom outside, a tradition going back to European cathedrals.
Many sculptures of beasts and fanciful distortions of people and animals were created solely by the carvers. Early in Palumbo's career, for example, another carver noticed Palumbo turning away from his work to whistle at passersby. The friend chided Palumbo about the trouble Palumbo would face if the cathedral dean saw his actions. The friend did a carving of Palumbo turning his head and puckering to whistle, which now sits next to a carving of a horrified dean adorned with angel's wings.
"You start to consider the place a part of yourself," Palumbo said. "I know nothing else . . . . They claim the cathedral is finished, but there is a lot more to be done."
Palumbo says three or four dozen more statues and sculptures need to be commissioned.
Palumbo has become popular since he was featured in a 1985 documentary, "The Stone Carvers." Produced locally by Marjorie Hunt and Paul Wagner, the film, which chronicled the work of several carvers at the cathedral, won an Academy Award.
"It was my job and now it is almost over. There were eight carvers in here six months ago working, and now it is empty. It is depressing sometimes, but it makes me happy because just look at what we've done."