Steady Recovery in D.C.
  • Wednesday, April 23, 2014

By Peggy Eastman

The first phase of a $26 million project to repair damage at Washington National Cathedral from a 5.8 magnitude earthquake in August 2011 should be completed in about a year, according to James W. Shepherd, the cathedral’s director of preservation and facilities.

“Now we’re back in construction mode after 20 years,” said Shepherd, speaking at a building-update presentation at All Saints Church in Chevy Chase, Maryland, which donated $7,500 toward the restoration. The large stone cathedral, begun in 1907, was finished in 1990.

“There is exciting progress at the cathedral,” said Shepherd, a preservation specialist who was hired a year ago to oversee earthquake repairs.

“I think most people are very supportive of getting the cathedral back to its pre-earthquake state,” he told TLC. “I feel like it will be good to get past the earthquake repairs so we can live into our programs.”

The cathedral is stable and has continued to host services, funerals for dignitaries, events, and concerts. But scaffolding and black netting, strung under the nave ceiling at the clerestory level to catch possible falling debris, remind visitors of the 2011 quake.

Because cathedral officials had elected not to carry costly earthquake insurance — the 2011 earthquake was the first since 1897 — $26 million for repairs has to be raised in individual donations. The building is now insured against earthquake damage.

Before the earthquake on August 23, 2011, a task force had prepared a report due that September concluding that $30 million would be needed in the next 10 to 15 years to perform necessary restoration and repairs. “The earthquake added another $26 million,” Shepherd said.

“We never had complete, accurate drawings of the building when it was completed in 1990,” he said.

The restoration team used a scanner to create a three-dimensional drawing of the building, from which models could be made to guide the post-quake restoration.

One possible bright spot: some of the necessary work identified by the task force, such as repairing leaks and cleaning stone and stained glass, can be done in conjunction with repairing earthquake damage. The stained glass was relatively undamaged because soft leading helped it move with the quake.

“The access is three-quarters of it, so if we can take care of it while the scaffolding is up, that is all to the good,” Shepherd told TLC.

Another bright spot: acoustic tiles on parts of the cathedral ceiling, which deaden reverberations, are being coated with an acrylic substance to enhance the sound of cathedral concerts and choristers. “The musicians hated this tile,” Shepherd said.

Most of the quake damage occurred in the highest parts of the cathedral; the quake’s force most strongly affected the heavy cone-shaped pinnacles of the soaring central tower.

“I heard what I thought were explosions,” said mason foreman Joseph Alonso, who also spoke at the update session at All Saints Church. “The tops of the pinnacles were missing. I couldn’t believe it.” Alonso has worked at the cathedral for more than 28 years. During repairs, he has thought to himself, Can you believe what we’re doing? We’re taking this thing apart. Now, said Alonso, “We’re experimenting with different types of grout to fill in the voids between stones” as they are repaired, among other improvements.

When people ask why the cathedral repairs are so costly, Shepherd said he tells them that a crane must lift damaged pinnacles and then lower them to the ground, scaffolding and platforms have to be erected, and several-ton stones have to be carved again by master stone masons under Alonso’s direction to replicate what was in the original.

In a highly publicized Sept. 7, 2011 accident, still under investigation, a 30-story crane fell, clipping part of the cathedral’s Herb Cottage gift shop and landing in front of Church House. No one was hurt or killed, but several of the cathedral’s more than 40 flying buttresses were damaged. During quake repairs, more steel reinforcement rods are being added. “We are doing quite a bit of reinforcement to the flying buttresses,” Shepherd said.

The first phase of the cathedral’s earthquake repairs costs $10 million, including $2 million for stabilization, which has been raised. Another $16 million must be raised for a second phase.

“We may choose to start it without all the money in hand, but ideally we’d like to have the money in hand,” Shepherd told TLC. If funds are forthcoming for the second phase, the earthquake repairs could be finished in three years.

“Thank you for your support. We need it,” said cathedral chief development officer Rita Walters, who also attended the All Saints Church presentation. “Please stay connected to the cathedral.” She invited listeners to take free tours of the cathedral to strengthen that connection.


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