Washington National Cathedral set to reopen for 9/11 anniversary weekend

August 28, 2011

Washington National Cathedral, closed since it sustained damage following an Aug. 23 magnitude-5.8 earthquake, is set to reopen for a series of events planned for the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

The building suffered further damage over the weekend from Hurricane Irene, whose high winds caused loose masonry to fall from the building and further displaced some of the pinnacles, said Joseph Alonso, the cathedral's mason foreman, during a live webcast on Aug. 29.

Several teams of architects and structural engineers have been called in to assess the damage to the building, Andrew Hullinger, the cathedral's senior director for finance and administration, said during the webcast. "The engineers tell us that they believe the cathedral building is structurally sound," he said. "The bad news is that we have sustained some serious damage to the exterior and the pinnacles [and]…some compression fracturing to the buttresses."

In the coming days, the building will be stabilized to ensure it does not pose any risk to visitors. The 9/11 anniversary events are scheduled for Sept. 9 - 11.

A detailed assessment of the interior began Aug. 29. Debris nets will be installed inside as a safety precaution, a protective fence will completely surround the cathedral and entry chutes will be built to allow guests to access the building safely.

During the live stream, video footage revealed the damage to the cathedral with close-up shots of the pinnacles, some of which have been displaced by several inches.

"It's heartbreaking and surreal to see the damage," said Alonso, who began his apprenticeship as a stonemason in 1979 and came to the National Cathedral in 1985. He took over as mason foreman in 1990.

Alonso was in the cathedral grounds at the time of the earthquake when he heard what he thought was an explosion. "Had we not scheduled a repair job on the granite steps, we'd have been on a ladder in the scaffolding," he said.

Once the building is stabilized, the cathedral will move onto reconstruction, Alonso said, noting that the Indiana limestone used to build the cathedral is readily available but that "every one of those crockets, finials and angels was hand-carved."

In a plea for financial assistance, Hullinger explained that the cathedral, like "most businesses on the east coast, ... does not have earthquake insurance" and that it will take many millions of dollars and many years to repair the damage.

Cathedral Dean Sam Lloyd "said it was the nation that built the cathedral, paid for stone by stone," said Hullinger. "Now at this time we return to the nation and appeal to your generosity to restore this cathedral to all of its grandeur and glory."

-- Matthew Davies is an Episcopal News Service editor/reporter.