- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Stone carver Andy Uhl has had his hands on some of Washington, D.C.’s most famous buildings — the White House, Lincoln Memorial, Folger Theater, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception — but he got his start as an apprentice at the Washington National Cathedral. That’s why, when he stepped out onto the stone behemoth’s central tower two years ago to survey the damage caused by a magnitude 5.8 earthquake, Mr. Uhl took it especially hard.

“I thought I’d be emotionally unattached, but going up on the tower and seeing a lot of damage, it was like the wind being sucked out of you,” the 49-year-old said Tuesday as he remembered that first look. “I learned something about myself that day.”

Decades after Mr. Uhl started his apprenticeship at the cathedral on Wisconsin Avenue Northwest, he has returned to his roots as part of a small crew of stone carvers and masons tasked with painstakingly restoring and strengthening the church.

“Part of the rebuilding is how can we better reinforce the cathedral,” mason foreman Joseph Alonso said. “What can we do to put it back together in a more earthquake-resistant way.”

That question is what Mr. Alonso and his small team have been working on for the past 20 months since the earthquake occurred in Mineral, Va., about 90 miles from the District.

Thanks to a $5 million endowment, the crew was able to erect special scaffolding this year that allows workers an up-close examination of the six flying buttresses damaged during the quake.

Climbers on the scaffolding can easily reach out and feel the rough stones that have been left untouched for decades after stonemasons placed them high above the ground during construction. Amid the broad buttresses are large stained-glass windows that escaped any damage.

When the earthquake struck, the cathedral’s spires twisted on their bases while the buttresses stretched and compressed like an accordion.

“All the energy went up and up and up,” he explained. “It’s mind-boggling how this stuff moved.”

People in nearly 20 states reported feeling the earth shake. It caused upward of $300 million in damage, including to the Washington Monument, which is also in the midst of a lengthy and expensive repair.

This particular 1-ton spire amid the scaffolding still sways in the wind, and even under the strong hands of Mr. Alonso, demonstrating the power with which the cathedral was rocked.

Once Mr. Alonso and his crew finish their work on this buttress and tower, it should help engineers with their assessment of how the rest of the buttresses and stonework should be repaired.

“We’re very faithfully reproducing what was there,” Mr. Alonso said.

A towering man himself at 6-feet-5-inches tall, Mr. Alonso has been working at the cathedral since 1985. He talks animatedly about the building. He pauses at a cluster of initials and names etched into the metal roof — some date back half a century — and he doesn’t hesitate to lean over a stone balcony to point out certain chips and cracks amid the spires.

Meredith MacKenzie, spokeswoman for the cathedral, said $9 million has been raised to help restore the cathedral but at least $20 million is needed for the repairs, which could take up to 10 years to complete.

“The damage was pretty significant,” Mr. Alonso said. “But I always go back to the thought that if the quake had lasted a few seconds longer, we would have lost a tremendous amount more stones.”