Assessing The National Cathedral's Quake Damage

Oct 6, 2011
Originally published on October 6, 2011 5:49 pm
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit


The Washington National Cathedral is recovering from its own natural disaster. Back in August, a rare earthquake here in the mid-Atlantic knocked the tips off the cathedral's highest pinnacles. And it shook dozens of carvings - cherubs and angels, among them - loose from their perches. Ever since, the building has been closed and the repairs will cost tens of millions of dollars and take as long as 10 years according to the stonemason in charge.

That's Joseph Alonso, and he joins us here in the studio. Welcome.


RAZ: Can you give us an idea of what and how bad the damage really is?

ALONSO: Well, the damage, it's astounding when you walk around the cathedral. It is the amount of displacement that's occurred on those upper pinnacles just as the quake hit and the building shook. That energy - or whatever you want to call it - just shook through the walls and kept on going and going, and ended up way up there in those pinnacles and they all popped.

RAZ: An article I saw described it as chess pieces about to fall off the edge of the table. That's what it looks like right now.

ALONSO: Yes, some of the pinnacles, the ones on top of the central tower, which is 301 feet tall, yeah, the chess pieces or I also liken it to a Jenga game, looks like a, yeah, just the way those blocks are stacked, it's just amazing the way it shook and how far they were displaced.

RAZ: What are you doing in terms of short-term repairs?

ALONSO: Well, really, there's no repairs yet going on. We are stabilizing. We are - scaffolding is being built. We're getting up to the most - problem areas, which right now is the very top of the central tower building, a huge scaffold...

RAZ: And you can see that, by the way, for miles around here in the city of Washington, yeah.

ALONSO: For miles, exactly. And that scaffolding will eventually envelop the four pinnacles which are the four worst ones. And then other areas of the building - of course, the cathedral is fenced off. And the fencing is there as a safety precaution due to the different areas that are at risk of falling masonry.

RAZ: This could take as long as 10 years?

ALONSO: I would estimate it at 10 years. I look at the work and, you know, as a stonemason, you look at what it takes to build something like this. I worked on the construction of the west towers back in the 1980s. You know, we built the pinnacles. We built the west towers. So I know what it took to build them. And now, here we are having to dismantle something as large - larger than the ones we built in the west towers and put back together. Repair and put back together.

RAZ: And we should note the cathedral took more than a hundred years to build from the beginning. Will these repairs make the cathedral more earthquake-proof?

ALONSO: Well, that's one of the things that the engineering team that we have in place - that's just one of the early discussions that have been going on is we're going to rebuild and how can we rebuild these large masonry, solid stone pinnacles? You know, what can we do to them to make them more earthquake-resistant in the future? I mean, do we brace them? Do we band them with metal? I mean, what - those are the questions that the engineers are going to be looking into when the time comes to reconstruct these.

RAZ: We're talking about a cathedral that is 301 feet high. It is the second largest cathedral in America if I'm right.

ALONSO: Right. Sixth largest in the world.

RAZ: In the world. Getting up there to do these repairs must be quite precarious.

ALONSO: Yeah. Again, the scaffold that's being built right now on top of the central tower, they've swung 80 foot I-beams up there. It's an amazing structure. It's an amazing engineering feat in and of itself to get up there. And, again, getting to the work - and it's always been like that at the cathedral. Getting to the work is more than half the battle.

RAZ: That's Joseph Alonso. He is the head stonemason for the Washington National Cathedral. Joe, thank you so much.

ALONSO: You're very welcome.


RAZ: And the cathedral plans to re-open on November 12th. Joe Alonso says it will be safe and stabilized, but there is much more work to do. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.