- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

Joseph Alonso's love for his work is carved in stone.

Mr. Alonso is the mason foreman for the Washington National Cathedral. His job is to care for the limestone used to build the cathedral, altogether 150,000 tons, including a central tower that reaches the highest point in the District.

He joined the cathedral's staff in 1985, when the structure was still under construction. He can point out the first stone he ever laid in the building, and confesses that he has left his signature on one or two of the stones.

"For a mason, this is the ultimate place to be. Everyone who has been involved in the cathedral has left their mark in some small way, for posterity's sake," he says.

The cathedral sits at the intersection of Wisconsin and Massachussettes avenues NW. It was built in the same manner as were medieval Gothic churches, with stone upon stone and no structural steel.

More than 100 masons worked on it at the height of its construction, which began Sept. 29, 1907, and was completed exactly 83 years later. Mr. Alonso helped put the final stone in place during a ceremony presided over by then President George Bush.

These days, Mr. Alonso is one of about three permanent masons on the cathedral's staff. Each day brings something different for the crew. On any given day, they might work on repairing or cleaning the limestone or building new stone structures on the cathedral's grounds.

On a recent Tuesday, Mr. Alonso got down to business about 7 a.m., when his crew began work on a piece of stone needed for the construction of a new elevator in the cathedral's attic.

About 8 a.m., Mr. Alonso begins surveying the cathedral building. This is something he does nearly every three months, checking cracks at various spots in the building and looking for areas where the roof or walls may leak.

Every building, even a cathedral made of solid limestone, has cracks, he says. "We do see a lot of settlement, where the building has settled into the ground."

Mr. Alonso first checks a small crack where the nave of the building meets one of the towers. He has been measuring the crack every few months for about six years. The masonry tends to expand when the weather turns warmer and contract during cold weather, he says.

Pulling a small gauge from his bag, Mr. Alonso determines that the crack has contracted just eight-hundredths of an inch since the last time he measured it. He records this information in the old spiral bound notebook that serves as his log.

Mr. Alonso has several more cracks to check during a tour that will take him through the labyrinth of hidden passages within the cathedral's walls. His stops include an area near the west tower, where the cathedral's famous Darth Vader gargoyle looms high above the ground; the cathedral's attic; and an area above the vaulted arches that form the cathedral's ceilings.

In the darker passages, such as the area above the arches, Mr. Alonso shines a flashlight along the walls to check for leaks. Leaks occur often, but they are rarely serious, he says.

"There's a lot of watching in this job. You always have to monitor what is happening," he says.

His clothes bluejeans, work boots and a heavy brown denim coat become covered in dust as he moves along his tour.

By 10 a.m., the tall, lean but broad-shouldered Mr. Alonso is on the roof of the cathedral's central tower, which is as tall as an average 30-story office building. The central tower is 676 feet above sea level, making its top the highest point in the District.

The Washington Monument is 555 feet high.

"You get inspired when you're up here working. We could have done a sloppy job [when building the central tower]. Who would ever see it? But we have stayed true to the Gothic style," he says.

Mr. Alonso's final stop during his survey is the slype, an area where the cathedral's priests dress before each service. Here, he checks on a stonecutter who is carving a magnolia in a light fixture in the ceiling.

The carving will be a tribute to John Kraus, a verger for the cathedral who died a few years ago. Vergers traditionally care for a church's interior, ring bells and greet visitors at the door.

Mr. Alonso admires the stonecutter's work. At the National Cathedral, masons maintain and repair the stone, while the cutters create the elaborate gargoyles and sculptures that decorate virtually every wall and ceiling.

"Nothing in this world is perfect, but this about as perfect as human hands get," Mr. Alonso says as he admires some of the cutter's work.

Before his day is over, Mr. Alonso will check in on the construction of a wall on the cathedral's grounds along Woodley Road NW. He will also visit the elementary school that sits on the grounds to check on a stone wall that needs repair. His work day will end at about 3:30 p.m.

Mr. Alonso's father was a mason, and the son says he can't imagine doing anything else for a living.

His dad died before Mr. Alonso joined the cathedral's staff. He likes to think his father would be proud of his work at the cathedral.

The National Cathedral, which is officially named the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world and the second largest in the United States. The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York is the world's largest.

"It's the most interesting building in Washington. Everywhere you look inside this place, the detail is unbelievable," Mr. Alonso says.

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