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Shoring up a national house of prayer

Twenty-one years after master stonemason Joe Alonso placed the Washington National Cathedral's last stone, a rare East Coast earthquake undid much of his life's work. So he continues.

December 05, 2012|By Timothy M. Phelps, Washington Bureau
  • Master stonemason Joe Alonso is in charge of reconstruction at the Washington National Cathedral, which was damaged in the 5.8 earthquake that struck the East Coast on Aug. 23, 2011.
Master stonemason Joe Alonso is in charge of reconstruction at the Washington… (Carolyn Cole, Los Angeles…)

WASHINGTON — The earth shook under the nation's church, snapping some of the 53 carillon bells' cables and causing them to ring in forbidding disharmony.

Outside, cracks appeared on some of the wing-like flying buttresses supporting the 100-foot walls and intricate stone arches that mark the Washington National Cathedral as one of the world's greatest Gothic churches.

Still the ground shuddered, coursing energy upward to the grimacing or mirthful gargoyles and the 152 pinnacles that rise like twirled candy above the sheet lead roof. The force, a raging river pressed into a narrow gully, became ever more concentrated as it flowed into the twin 234-foot west towers and the 301-foot central tower.

PHOTOS: National Cathedral

The tops of 50-ton pinnacles started swaying from north to south, then dancing like raindrops upon their pedestals. Crockets, finials and other ornaments, hand-chiseled by generations of mostly Italian carvers, started falling with booms that master stonemason Joe Alonso, outside on the grounds in his truck, thought were explosions.

Twenty-one years before, Alonso had put the Episcopal cathedral's last stone in place, capping the nearly century-long effort to create a "house of prayer for all people," the scene of events etched into the nation's memory. When former President Reagan died in 2004, his state funeral there drew 4,000 people, including 36 kings, presidents and prime ministers.

The son of a stonemason who emigrated from Spain, Alonso's lifelong work had been the cathedral, first building it, then maintaining it. Now, jumping out of his truck, he joined tourists and church staff who gaped at the building.

"I saw crowds looking up," the 51-year-old said. "Then I saw the tower, the first three pinnacles, and I thought, wait a minute, is it gone?"

The fourth pinnacle was indeed gone. The job Alonso thought he had finished suddenly wasn't.

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The rare East Coast earthquake that hit at 1:51 p.m. on Aug. 23, 2011, shook more people than any other in U.S. history, from Georgia to the U.S.-Canada border.

"Everything was missing and twisted," Alonso said. "My fear was, has the structure of the cathedral been compromised?"

A big fellow — 6 foot 5 — who went to a Catholic high school in Washington's Virginia suburbs, he looks like the stone man that he is. But as he strides around its manicured grounds or leans out over its balconies — all the while pointing and exclaiming, "I built that arch!" or "I built that pinnacle!" — he emerges also as the philosopher in residence.

"This cathedral stands for a lot of things," Alonso said recently, sitting on an overturned plastic pail in his masonry-dusted workshop littered with salvaged finials and lined with the tools of his trade.

"I've been around this cathedral for 27 years, and it affects people who visit many different ways," he said. "Some come for the architecture, the craftsmanship, the artwork. Then there are those who walk in the door and fall on their knees and pray. This building, it touches people, on many different levels."

On Sept. 29, 1990, Alonso and two other men guided the last stone, a 1,008-pound cross-shaped finial, into place on one of the west towers, as President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush looked on.

"It was 83 years from the day the first stone was laid," with President Teddy Roosevelt supervising, Alonso said. "That, for me, was a powerful moment.

I was up there guiding that stone and I felt there were a lot of stonemason ghosts helping me do that."

Now Alonso was afraid to know just how much work had been undone. He would have to climb the central tower, which rises above the center of the cross-shaped building, to find out.

"I thought, I don't want to go up but I have to go up. As I climbed up the spiral staircase, I thought, am I going to see a big chunk of daylight through the walls?"

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The National Cathedral was built in the old way, entirely by hand, with the exception of the cranes that lifted the pieces in place.

Two types of craftsmen and craftswomen built the exterior. Alonso is a stonemason, who wielded a trowel to put its pieces together. Alongside the masons worked the stone carvers, whose chisels sculpted the 112 gargoyles and 1,130 grotesques, the angels and the decorative crockets, or balls, the arches and the statues.

After high school Alonso learned the stone trade in Washington as an apprentice for four years in the Stone and Marble Masons Union, then went to work at the cathedral on the last big project, building the two west towers, which at that point were just barely above the roof line.

In fact, he married this sculpted hunk of stone even as he married his wife, Maureen, whom he first spied 27 years ago from the scaffolding high up on the South Tower as the young horticulturist was working the flower beds in the Bishop's Garden below.

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