In October 1963, before war and assassination crushed the optimism of the age, a proud stonemason took an old nickel and probably with a hammer and chisel whacked a single dent in it.
Then he and his colleagues took the nickel, a quarter, a penny and a dime, and pressed them into the mortar that was about to cement the top pieces of the highest part of Washington National Cathedral, hiding the coins forever.
Forty-eight years later, a week or so after the Aug. 23 earthquake, the cathedral’s chief stonemason, Joe Alonso, was examining the pieces of the two-ton pinnacle, which had toppled onto the roof, when he spotted objects embedded in the mortar.
He got out his chisel, freed the four coins, and realized what they were: marks of the men in whose steps he walked, the signatures of the vanished artisans who helped build the cathedral generations before.
“I knew immediately,” Alonso said. “The masons.”
“This is pretty cool,” he said that he thought.
As he and others labor to make repairs on the English Gothic edifice, they confront the handiwork of hundreds of craftsmen who built the cathedral over the course of 83 years, and traditions that go back centuries.
“The building has been entrusted, in a way, to me, to us, to our crew,” Alonso said Friday. “Looking at the work of our predecessors, you walk around the building and . . . you’re like, ‘Wow, I wonder how they rigged this piece of stone, put it in place. I wonder how they did this, did that.’ ”
“Now, we’ve got to reconstruct this thing,” he said. “If someone told me I’d be having to reconstruct the pinnacles of the central tower — oh, my God.’”
But thanks to his mentors, most of them long gone, he said, “I know how to do it.”
The cathedral, a kind of national place of gathering and remembrance, was built between 1907 and 1990.
The first services at the cathedral were held in 1912 in a chapel that was an early part of the structure, with work continuing on the building for decades afterward.
Located at Wisconsin and Massachusetts avenues NW, the building suffered an estimated $15 million in damage when an earthquake in August knocked loose chunks of Indiana limestone and sent them hurtling toward the ground.
In recent weeks, loose pieces of stone have been removed. The 301-foot-tall structure’s three towers have been stabilized. And the cathedral plans to reopen Nov. 12.
Alonso, 50, who set the cathedral’s last stone in 1990, said that he is not certain of the coin scenario but that it probably happened. “It’s a mason’s thing,” he said. “I’ve done it myself.”
A photograph that Alonso found in a book appears to depict the 1963 setting of the final piece. In it, dignitaries are gathered on scaffolding around a pinnacle as a worker prepares an evergreen bush, which Alonso said was traditionally attached to a “topped out” structure.
Alonso, a native of Gary, Ind., and the son of a stonemason/steelworker, has worked at the cathedral since 1985.
A tall, amiable man, he wears a white hard hat with “JOE” written in faded marker on the front. He has calloused hands and bad knees but is thankful his back has held up.
He said he was sitting in a pickup truck outside the cathedral the day the quake struck. He and some colleagues had been working on scaffolding on the outside of the building a few days earlier but had turned to another job on the front steps.
Alonso said he heard what sounded like “explosions” as the quake sent huge chunks of limestone plummeting to the ground and the roof.
Later, he said, he discovered that had they been working on the scaffolding, he and his co-workers could have been killed by falling stone. “We would have been toast,” he said.
He was lucky then.
And he said he feels fortunate to have worked on the cathedral for more than a quarter-century.
“This is the ultimate place to be a stonemason,” he said.