“It was 83 years from the day the first stone was laid,” with President Teddy Roosevelt supervising, Alonso said. “That, for me, was a powerful moment. I was up there guiding that stone and I felt there were a lot of stonemason ghosts helping me do that.”
Now Alonso was afraid to know just how much work had been undone. He would have to climb the Central Tower, which rises above the center of the cross-shaped building, to find out.
“The National Cathedral was built in the old way, entirely by hand, with the exception of the cranes that lifted the pieces in place.
Two types of craftsmen and craftswomen built the exterior. Alonso is a stonemason who wielded a trowel to put its pieces together. Alongside the masons worked the stone carvers, whose chisels sculpted the 112 gargoyles and 1,130 grotesques, the angels and the decorative crockets, or balls, the arches and the statues.
Alonso climbed the spiral staircase, and was relieved: He didn’t see daylight. “But when I got to the roof, it was just littered with stones from the pinnacles.” A 2-ton pinnacle top had toppled, but it had fallen inward onto the tower. Had it gone the other way, it would have fallen 200 feet through the roof of the nave, the main body of the cathedral.
Looking down, he could see scaffolding on the north side of the nave where he and his two stone carvers, Andy Uhl and Sean Callahan, had planned to perform maintenance that afternoon until other chores got in the way. The area was littered with fist-sized chunks of stone.
Alonso says that despite his workplace, he is not overly religious. But at that moment, he thought, “There you go, the hand of God, the hand of whoever, was looking out for Andy, Sean and Joe.” And for their beloved cathedral. “I don’t think of God as Catholic or Episcopalian. But there is some higher being that liked this building who was looking out for us.”
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