Public Media Arts Hub

The painstaking process of repairing a damaged cathedral


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: Washington National Cathedral has received $22 million in donations to open the Cathedral College of Faith and Culture. It focuses on topics ranging from ethics in politics to liturgical art to training clergy.

The emphasis on culture, as well as religion, is also seen in the work to repairing damage caused by a 2011 earthquake.

Jeffrey Brown visited to see what lessons there may be for the reconstruction teams at Notre Dame in Paris and what lesson those at America's second largest church may glean from the Paris rebuilding as well.

This story is part of our ongoing coverage of arts and culture, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: April 15, the world watched as fire ravaged the Roman Catholic Gothic cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.

In Washington, D.C., that day, the head of one of this country's largest cathedrals was heartbroken.

The Very Reverend Randy Hollerith: I literally had to stop and catch my breath and say a prayer right at that moment. I know how devastating it was for us with just this earthquake, and seeing the flames shooting up the spire of Notre Dame, unbelievable.

Jeffrey Brown: The Very Reverend Randy Hollerith is dean of the Washington National Cathedral, the seat of the Episcopal Church in America, as well as the local diocese.

The cathedral, begun in 1907 and built over 83 years, is a toddler by the standards of the 850-year-old Notre Dame. It's made of Indiana limestone in a 14th century English Gothic style.

And for decades, it's been an inspiring house of worship and of civic engagement. This is where state funerals have been held for presidents, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush this past December.

Cynthia McFadden: That 5.8-magnitude earthquake outside Washington, D.C., today.

Jeffrey Brown: But, on August 23, 2011, a rare earthquake hit the nation's capital.

Man: The National Cathedral damaged, part of one of the pinnacles, falling to the ground.

Jeffrey Brown: It was relatively small, but caused extensive damage to this historic structure.

Joe Alonso: Well, without a doubt, this top of the tower is the absolute worst.

Oh, it was insane that day. We were luckily on the ground working, and all of a sudden, I heard what I thought were explosions.

Jeffrey Brown: Joe Alonso is head stonemason here, part of the team that set about assessing damage, what he calls masonry triage.

Joe Alonso: It lasted only 58 seconds. And when it ended, we just kind of started looking around and looking up at the towers, at the pinnacles, and seeing how things had rotated or fell or were twisted. And it was just incredible.

Jeffrey Brown: No one was injured that day, and the cathedral was reopened to the public within three months.

Nearly eight years later, the progress is evident. Pinnacles on the West towers have been restored. Near the Rose Window in the nave, the ceiling has been repainted, patching all the stones which had shaken loose from the upheaval.

In the yard on the side of the cathedral, reconstructed grotesques wait to be reinstalled once more funds are raised. Heads of prophets are intact in some places, still missing in others. And signs of the trauma remain.

Alonso showed us a part of the cathedral's south choir.

Joe Alonso: You look at these three pinnacles in a row. This big one here in the foreground, it's in good shape. It didn't move. You get the next one, do you notice how it's rotated? It's like a giant hand were to take it and twist it like that.

Jeffrey Brown: Wow.

Joe Alonso: You can see it's rotated several degrees and the top finial is cracked. And then the one beyond it, we had to remove with a large crane. The top six-and-a-half-foot tall section had shaken and kind of shimmied over, almost to its tipping point.

Jeffrey Brown: The National Cathedral is one of the few to still have its own stone carving workshop. We watched veteran carvers work using air hammers with chisels, a modern adaptation of ancient traditions. And tradition is big here.

These and other artisans began as apprentices under Vincent Palumbo, a fifth-generation Italian craftsman who served as master carver at the cathedral. He died in 2000.

On this day, Sean Callahan was sculpting a limestone copy of a finial that had fallen in the earthquake and was damaged beyond repair. It will take about two months to do, he said, as he studies the work of an earlier carver.

Sean Callahan: Here, I'm trying to copy his very distinct way he did the veining and how deep the undulations are. What's interesting now is trying to figure out older approaches, trying to decipher what other people did and the way they did things.

It's always fun to start a new piece and seeing the shape come out, seeing it emerge. Just creating something out of a raw stone and just seeing it emerge is what motivates me.

Jeffrey Brown: More cutting-edge technologies are used in nearby Northern Virginia, where Mike Kennedy takes 3-D scans of damaged works, then cut stone renderings which serve as guides for the stone carvers back at the cathedral.

Some 900 scans of the actual building were done in 2014 to provide a blueprint should another disaster strike. Overseeing all the repair and preservation work is Jim Shepherd, the cathedral's chief architect. The fire at Notre Dame hit close to home.

Jim Shepherd: When we put our building together, we had brick and stone, so similar to them. But then we also had the steel in our roof structure. But they had a whole forest of historic ancient oak in their attic.

Jeffrey Brown: Did what happened at Notre Dame make you rethink anything, kind of a wakeup call?

Jim Shepherd: Yes, and how much we have to invest in this to make sure our building is safe and the people are safe in it.

Jeffrey Brown: Officials estimate total costs of $34 million, of which $15 million has been raised from private donors and foundations and spent on repairs.

It's a tiny sum compared to Notre Dame's needs, but it doesn't come easily. Even small donations are welcome. A giant LEGO reproduction is in process, as visitors help rebuild by buying bricks. Ultimately, some half-million pieces will be involved in this largest-ever LEGO cathedral, and hopefully up to $1 million raised.

Dean Hollerith said he was heartened to see the enormous funding pledges pouring into Paris, nearly a billion dollars. But he was also not surprised by the backlash from those who argue the money should go first to people in real need.

The Very Reverend Randy Hollerith: We have tried to stay very balanced as we look at our own repairs. We raise money along and along to repair the cathedral.

And, at the same time, we're also trying to make sure that we're raising money that we need to do the mission and ministry that we need, so that we are active in the community, so that we are caring for the sick and the needy.

Jeffrey Brown: As the work continues on the building, the cathedral community will watch carefully the restoration of Notre Dame, showing solidarity recently with the tolling of its bells, along with churches and cathedrals around the world.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the Washington National Cathedral.

John Yang: The cathedral staff sent a hand-carved finial to France last week aboard Air Force One as part of the U.S. commemoration of the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Support Canvas

Sustain our coverage of culture, arts and literature.

Send Us Your Ideas
Let us know what you'd like to see on ArtsCanvas. Your thoughts and opinions matter.