Kenneth Lambides wears a green hard hat, safety goggles and a yellow hazard vest as he grasps the stained-glass image of the early Christian martyr Saint Alban.
Perched on outdoor scaffolding high up the north side of the Washington National Cathedral, Lambides has crisscrossed the window with tape, so it won’t come apart, and removed the hardened putty holding it in place.
When he gets the window free, it looks dingy with wear. But when he turns it toward the sun, light floods through the grime. The youthful saint, pictured before his beheading, has an orange halo. He holds a translucent green frond, and his robe is trimmed in purple and gold.
But the Saint Alban panel, and the other segments of the cathedral’s two towering “Te Deum” windows, had been in place for 82 years. They leak. They’re dirty with the smoke of decades of burning candles. And they are in need of repairs.
This month, the cathedral embarked on a delicate, nine-month project to remove and restore the famous windows, which — installed when Herbert Hoover was president — are among the oldest in the edifice.
Experts are taking advantage of the extensive scaffolding already in place for ongoing repairs of damage from the 2011 earthquake to do the window work.
Lambides and a team from Femenella & Associates, of Branchburg, N.J., are removing the north set of windows at the D.C. landmark. A team from Goldkuhle Studios, in Hanover County, Va., removed the south set of windows Oct. 14 and 15.
The windows, which are 65 feet tall and were installed in 1932, depict kaleidoscopic scenes mostly from the Bible and Christian tradition — Saint Alban is shown in another panel about to be beheaded by a swordsman.
There are apostles, prophets and more martyrs. The stoning of Saint Stephen is shown, and Saint Polycarp is being burned at the stake. The Magna Carta is depicted. So are Christopher Columbus, a radio microphone and an airplane, among other historically important images, according to the cathedral.
“There are hundreds of figures,” said Andrew Goldkuhle, who heads Goldkuhle Studios.
All are in spectacular colors of red, blue and green, and made of thousands of pieces of glass held together with lead. The windows will be disassembled piece by piece, cleaned, reassembled and reinstalled.
The cathedral declined to divulge how much the work will cost but said the funding comes from an endowment dedicated to the care of stained glass.
To expedite the work, two firms were hired. The window openings are being sealed with painted plywood until the project is finished.
The windows “went in in the early 1930s and honestly haven’t had much work done on them since,” said James W. Shepherd, the cathedral’s director of preservation and facilities. “They were pretty leaky, creaky.”
The windows take their theme from the Christian hymn “Te Deum,” which begins in Latin with the words “Te Deum laudamus” (We praise thee, O Lord).
The windows to be restored “are quite unusual in their appearance,” Shepherd said in an interview at the cathedral. “They’re different from most of our stained-glass windows, as to their coloring and also their height.”
They were designed by the famous American stained-glass-window artist Earl Edward Sanborn with funding from a $500,000 construction gift bestowed on the cathedral in 1914 by a wealthy New Jersey donor.
Removing the windows required the use of power tools, hammers and chisels, but also great care and a gentle touch.
“You’ve got to beat the putty to death, and then you’ve got this ridiculously fragile window that has to come out,” said Arthur J. Femenella Sr., who heads his firm.
“We use some electric tools,” he said. “But other than that, if you would have showed up . . . 800 years ago in Europe at a cathedral, guys would be doing similar kinds of things. It really hasn’t changed much.”
Craftsmen worked on scaffolding outside and inside the cathedral, and they removed the windows from the outside.
Lambides, 35, the site foreman, worked on the outside, while co-worker Tim Loprinzi, 22, worked from the inside. They had to be careful because the images are painted on the surface of the colored glass, and some paint already had worn off.
And each window, made of dozens of pieces, is fragile. Lambides planned to grab the oblong panel along its upper left horizontal and lower right horizontal edges to keep it from breaking. The panels are about 25 inches tall and 37 inches wide.
The men had removed most of the cement-like putty earlier and now had to work the window away from its stone setting without having it come apart. The panels were all carefully labeled and coded to keep track of their original placement.
“It’s nice to put the window back where it came from,” Femenella joked. The Saint Alban panel was WNC 112 II B.
Lambides chiseled out the last of the putty, and then he and Loprinzi started working the window loose.
“Your bottom left corner still seems a little adhered,” Lambides called out.
“Should be free,” Loprinzi replied.
“It’s almost there,” Lambides said.
Dust fell from the edges, and the panel wobbled as it was pulled from the stone that had held it in place for eight decades.
“I got it,” Lambides said, lifting the window from its setting.
The surface seemed black. “A lot of this soot and stuff is from candles burning over the years,” he said. “Smoke and heat always rises. . . . All the soot, and that, from the candles will adhere to the stone and the glass.”
But when he propped it in the sun, the colors and image came alive. There were blue stars over the saint’s shoulder, and a jagged red motif behind his robe.
“All the years I’ve been doing it, you think you’ve seen them all,” Lambides said. “But each window actually has a different history behind it. . . . It’s always a piece of history when you take the windows out.”