November 11th, 2011
03:59 PM ET
By Chris Ford, CNN
Washington (CNN) – For 20 years, stone mason Joe Alonso has been charged with maintaining and preserving what he calls “the spiritual home for the nation,” the capital’s National Cathedral.
But his charge changed dramatically on August 23, when Virginia was hit by a magnitude 5.8 earthquake that damaged the cathedral, along with landmarks like the Washington Monument.
Alonso now faces the daunting task of repairing a traditional Gothic cathedral, which has been closed to the public since the earthquake and which will reopen Saturday, even as repairs continue.
Early estimates show the total cost of restoration to be in the tens of millions of dollars, church officials said last month.
Most of the damage was sustained on the building’s three towers and most severely affected the carved pinnacles and embellishments that decorate them. Since then, Alonso’s focus has been on assessing the damage and securing the massive church.
“Having been involved in the construction of the Cathedral back in the ’80s and having seen its completion and then for the last 20 years we’ve been maintaining, preserving, restoring the building and then for this earthquake to hit, I never would have dreamed that we’d be reconstructing parts of this building,” he says.
Alonso and a colleague were working on the ground on the day of the quake and were able to get clear of the building as pieces began to fall: “We were fortunate.”
Later in August, Hurricane Irene blew an enormous oak tree down in front of the cathedral, causing more damage. And in September a 500-ton crane, used in efforts to stabilize the structure, collapsed at the cathedral, crushing several cars in a parking lot and injuring one person
The damage from recent events caused to relocation of big major services, including the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, which was attended by President Barack Obama, and the service for the unveiling of the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial on the National Mall.
With the stabilization process complete, the cathedral can now reopen. Its first official service since the earthquake will be the consecration of new Episcopal bishop for Washington, the Rev. Dr. Mariann Edgar Budde.
The stabilization process alone has been a “major feat of engineering” according to Alonso, with the scaffolding atop the cathedral’s central tower weighing 70 tons. Now, his focus turns to the massive task of repair and reconstruction.
“As a stone mason, I look at every one of these blocks of stone and I know what it takes to cut them, carve them, get them up there, set them in place,” he says. “It’s mindboggling, a huge amount of work.”
“Seeing it completely empty, it’s sad, it’s kind of weird,” says Alonso, recalling recent months. “You want to see the cathedral full of people and music and worship. That’s what it was made for.”
Alonso has been a stone mason at the Washington National Cathedral since 1985, participating in its construction and completion, which ended in 1990. Alonso laid the final stone himself and has led maintenance of the building since.
While his focus on the building has been predominantly architectural, he also realizes the impact the building has upon its visitors.
“Some people it’s purely a religious thing, other people it’s the architecture, just the massiveness of the building and all of that means something,” he says. “We want to keep it going.”
CNN's Kim Uhl contributed to this report.
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