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D.C. Gigs: Building (And Rebuilding) The National Cathedral

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Joe Alonso, silhouetted here, is the head stonemason of the Washington National Cathedral.
Jocelyn Frank
Joe Alonso, silhouetted here, is the head stonemason of the Washington National Cathedral.

Joe Alonso likes to joke that he has one of the oldest professions on Earth.

He is head stonemason at the Washington National Cathedral. The cathedral is situated on a hill on Wisconsin Avenue several hundred feet above the nation's capitol. The tallest of the cathedral's spires looms well above the top of the Washington Monument.

Alonso began work at the Washington National Cathedral over 27 years ago, but each day he continues to be humbled by the craftsmanship.

"Every one of these pieces of stone you see here is pretty much hand cut, hand made, fitted together by hand... all these arches and columns — incredible work," says Alonso.

The Stonewalls of the Washington National Cathedral hold some unique national treasures. The tomb of President Woodrow Wilson is inside. Wilson is the only President of the United States buried in the District of Columbia. The cathedral was also the location for the funeral services of the late Neal Armstrong, and Alonso points out the famous, "space window." The unusual stained glass window contains a swirling design meant to mimic outer space and the heavens. At its center is a piece of moon rock brought back by the astronauts of the Apollo 11 mission.

Life of a stonemason

Joe Alonso got his start in this work as a young boy. "My Dad was a mason. As a kid I would go around with him and help him on his side jobs."

Alonso went on to an apprenticeship with the Stonemason's Union in the District. "D.C., of course, is a great stone town," Alonso explains. "All the magnificent structures, monuments, buildings, block by block."

For a stonemason, Alonso thinks the Washington National Cathedral is, "the ultimate." In late 1984, he was offered a chance to work with a large collection of contracted masons to construct the Washington National Cathedral's original west tower. He worked hard and climbed the ranks to head stone mason. By Sept. 29, 1990 Alonso was joined by, then president, George H. W. Bush as he set the final stone of the Washington National Cathedral's construction. It was 83 years to the day that the first stone was laid.

For 21 years, the stonemasons and carvers of the Washington National Cathedral worked diligently on the regular upkeep of the cathedral's thousands of stones and intricate carvings. They were paired down to a modest and hard-working team of just three men. They envisioned a future of steady work at this pace. But in 2011, the earthquake struck and everything changed. Alonso explains that the south pinnacle was hit particularly hard, "as if a giant hand just took it, and rotated it counter-clockwise several degrees, all these chunks coming out."

The mason work multiplied a hundred fold, and today much of the Washington National Cathedral is under temporary scaffolding to add security to the jostled stones. In order to move any single out-of-place stone, all the stones above it must be removed and re-laid. The process is time consuming and delicate.

With the derecho of 2012 and Hurricane Sandy, Alonso spent a lot of time rushing up the winding stone staircases of the Cathedral to double check the scaffolding and look over the newly fragile and immensely heavy stones of the Cathedral. He and his team have their work cut out for them. Even in the face of such an immense project Joe Alonso's pride never tires, it's invigorated.

"This building is such an important part of the city, and of the nation... I've been on it now for 27 years. It is a part of me... almost 300 feet up in the air, and look at all the beautifully carved little angels, look at their little noses and eyelids and all of that — every one of these stones were hand carved...we want to put it back the way it was... and we will."

[Music: "Working for the Weekend" by The Brown Derbies from We Deliver / "Don't Look Back [Instrumental in the Style of Boston]" by Backtrack Professional Karaoke from Karaoke - In The Style of Boston]

Photos: National Cathedral Stonemason

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