National Cathedral Still Shaken by Earthquake That Struck 2 Years Ago

Courtney McBride

It was two years ago Friday that a rare earthquake shook the nation's capital, leaving most buildings in the Washington area unharmed but taking a toll on two of the city's most iconic structures—the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral.

Perched atop Mount St. Alban and visible from most points in the city, the cathedral sustained significant damage, from the cracking of rooftop finials to the toppling of pinnacles and the opening of cracks in flying buttresses of the apse.

Much like the monument, the soaring Gothic edifice remains shrouded in scaffolding two years after the quake. Cathedral administrators outlined the progress of the restoration efforts during a press conference Thursday. From the unique vantage point of a "dance floor" platform 60 feet above the west balcony over the cathedral's nave, the magnitude of the task is clear: The nave stretches approximately one-tenth of a mile.

One year ago, masons placed one of the first stones to be repaired atop the central tower. Andrew Hullinger, senior director of finance and administration, noted that the move was largely symbolic, as "we've done very little work up there since then." Instead, the focus has shifted toward a comprehensive assessment of the scope of the damage and to planning for restoration.

Even the scaffolding on the exterior of the apse is part of the ongoing assessment, rather than active repair work. The dance-floor scaffold above the west balcony, Hullinger explained, "represents the very first phase of a project to fully inspect and repair the interior vaulting." The interior restoration efforts are expected to take as long as 18 months.

According to Hullinger, the estimated cost of repairing the damage now totals $26 million, of which $10 million has been raised. This sum includes a $5 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, as well as $100,000 from Partners in Preservation through a contest sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and funded by American Express.

In addition to the damage caused by the earthquake, Hullinger emphasized that $36 million in facilities work remains in the cathedral and other buildings on the grounds. "Preservation is an ongoing and seemingly never-ending process," he noted. To date, the cathedral has spent approximately $3 million, or 12 percent of the expected total, on the restoration efforts.

Head mason Joe Alonso explained that the cathedral's roof "rattled" during the quake, scattering "debris fields" of bits of stone and mortar on the floor of the nave and elsewhere.

While the ceiling was deemed structurally sound, netting was strung along the length of the nave to prevent additional material from falling. In the coming weeks and months, engineers will assess the extent of the damage to the interior of the nave, and stonemasons will begin the necessary repairs, from tuck-pointing to the possible replacement of any severely damaged stone. While the platform is in place, workers can also clean the stained-glass windows and address cosmetic issues such as staining of the stone due to prior roof leaks.

Communications Director Richard Weinberg alluded to the fact that the earthquake damage has diverted attention from the cathedral's "efforts to advance the cause of justice, equality, and civil rights." He continued, "The sooner we can restore the cathedral's earthquake damage, the sooner we'll be able to provide the space for big dreams and important dialogue we're known for—without distractions."

The cathedral, which serves as "the spiritual home for the nation," is officially known as the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the principal church in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. In its broader role, the cathedral will be taking part in a number of events next week commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.