- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2015

More than three years after an earthquake rocked the East Coast, the Washington National Cathedral on Wednesday marked a milestone on its long road back to structural and architectural health.

Officials at the Episcopal cathedral offered reporters an up-close peek at the progress to date, tied to the completion of the first of a two-phase restoration project to repair an estimated $32 million in damages to the neo-Gothic structure in Northwest Washington. Despite the substantial stabilizing work done to date, the bulk of the repairs to the outside of the structure remain to be tackled and the work could take another decade or more.

While the work remains undone and funds for Phase II still must be raised, Cathedral restorers noted how much had been achieved, with the earthquake damage presenting an opportunity for a badly-needed clean-up operation as well.

“Every square inch of this ceiling has been touched by human hands,” said head stone mason Joe Alonso, “I’m amazed by the workmanship. To see how dirty it was and how clean it is now is unbelievable.”

After years of standing, the cathedral naturally collected dirt and soot. As part of the recovery project, Mr. Alonso’s crew has cleaned 50 stained-glass windows and used a silicon seal not available when construction of the cathedral began in 1907.

The mason has worked at the cathedral since 1985 and was present when the final stone was placed in 1990. Mr. Alonso and his crew were in the building an hour after the earthquake struck and saw little chips of stone from the ceiling all over the cathedral floor. Work to stabilize the roof and structure began immediately.

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Phase I of the restoration, which began March 2014, focused on inspecting, cleaning and repairing the interior of the Cathedral, as well as repairing the six damaged flying buttresses on the eastern side of the building. James G. Davis Construction Corp. was hired to complete the Phase I work. They spread approximately 59,000 square feet of netting beneath the roof of the cathedral to protect visitors from falling pieces of limestone. The crews worked approximately 210,000 hours of hard labor to clean 434,000 square feet of masonry vaulting.

But the first phase of the work represents only one-sixth of the overall exterior repairs required, officials said, and did not address much of the clearly visible damage. Phase II will focus on the Cathedral’s exterior, addressing the buttresses on either side of the nave and the pinnacles of the central tower. According to officials, this phase is expected to take about 10 years to complete but cannot begin until $22 million is raised to fund the work. The crew has over one million square feet of stone to clean and repair.

According to Jim Shepherd, director of preservation and facilities at the Cathedral, the scaffolding will be dismantled by Easter.

“To be able to work on the scaffolding and continue worship and activities down below was a real blessing and a collaborative effort,” said Mr. Shepherd, “Overall, it’s been a wonderful experience accessing the ceiling that hasn’t been touched in over 75 years. This is an engineering feat in itself.”

On Aug. 23, 2011, the largest earthquake to hit the East Coast in 115 years, with a magnitude of 5.8, struck near the small Virginia town of Mineral. The quake damaged the Cathedral’s rooftop finials, displaced stonework in the buttresses, cracked stones and mortar, broke hand-carved limestone gargoyles and angels that decorated the cathedral’s interior and exterior, and broke off three of the four spires atop the cathedral tower. The fourth spire was knocked out of alignment and was off balance.

It took 2 years to assess the damage to the cathedral and develop a plan to fix it. The quake also caused significant damage to the Washington Monument, which was closed for about two years.

The Cathedral’s insurance didn’t cover the damages, so officials initiated a national fundraising campaign.

The Cathedral, which is officially known as the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, is the sixth largest cathedral in the world and the second largest in the United States, behind the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan. Construction of the church began in 1907 and was only fully completed in 1990.

The cathedral has been used for national memorial services, state funerals — including President Reagan’s funeral — and inaugural prayer services for new presidents.

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