The tallest steeple at the Mormon temple in Kensington, Md., is missing the Angel Moroni. The golden statue has been removed for restoration. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

A familiar Beltway friend is taking a vacation. After 42 years spent blowing a horn 288 feet up in the air, the angel Moroni is getting a makeover. On Tuesday afternoon, the golden statue atop the highest spire of the Mormons’ iconic Washington D.C. Temple in Kensington, Md., descended to Earth for a much-needed restoration.

This is the first time the 18-foot-tall Moroni has come down since he was put in place before the temple’s dedication in 1974. Years spent out in all kinds of weather — buffeted by wind, rained on, struck by lightning, bathed in the exhaust of countless cars belching along the Beltway — have not been kind. The statue had lost some of its luster and suffered from corrosion, said John Fowler, director of the Washington, D.C. Temple Visitors’ Center, although he added: “It’s amazing to me it did as well as it did.”

On Tuesday — after workers manhandled 24 bolts that had rusted tight over the decades — a crane gingerly lifted the bronze statue from its perch. Moroni now rests on his side in the shade of the bridge that joins the temple’s entrance hall to the main building. A small crew of experts is administering to him.

The horn has been removed from Moroni’s lips. Two access panels have been cut in the back of the boat-size sculpture to get inside the hollow statue. After the inner supporting structure is strengthened, the panels will be welded back in place and the statue regilded. The uppermost part of the spire — 20 feet in length — was removed and will be replaced by more corrosion-resistant stainless steel.

The Washington Temple was the 16th constructed and the first on the East Coast. It’s the tallest temple in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

In architect Keith W. Wilcox’s early sketches, all six spires were unadorned. It was decided to top the easternmost steeple with the prophet who Mormons believe directed founder Joseph Smith to sacred texts inscribed upon gold plates. Avard T. Fairbanks was chosen to sculpt Moroni.

As the sculpture was in its final stages of completion, Fairbanks invited the design team to see it in Italy, where it was about to be cast. Wilcox took one look and said he didn’t like it. A flustered Fairbanks asked why.

“I told him that to me the Angel Moroni looked as if he were ‘drinking’ from his horn rather than ‘blowing’ it,” Wilcox wrote in a booklet he published after the temple was dedicated.

The architect was a former trombone player and explained that the instrument’s sounds are made by “buzzing” the lips, with the tone rising or falling depending on how tense the muscles are. Wrote Wilcox: “Immediately Dr. Fairbanks requested that I model this so that he could reform muscles around the mouth of the sculpture to give it the appearance of ‘blowing.’”

Wilcox said he tried to be modest when later telling friends he had the singular honor of modeling for the Angel Moroni.

“Humility was brought home, however, when first perceiving the statue 300 feet in the air,” he wrote. “I commented then that I could hardly see at that distance whether the Angel Moroni actually had a head, let alone how his lips appeared or whether there was the slightest resemblance.”

With the angel missing, the spire looks a bit like a decapitated oil derrick. Fowler said Moroni will be on the ground for a few more weeks before resuming his rightful place high in the sky, forever gazing toward the rising sun — and a clogged I-495.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated the founder of the Mormon Church.