Exploring the National Cathedral with Its Chief Stone Mason


Washington’s National Cathedral is the second, largest church building in the United States (after the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City). Constructed almost entirely using late Gothic construction techniques, the building contains 300 million pounds of Indiana limestone. We talked with the cathedral’s chief stone mason, Joseph Alonso, about the building’s history—and efforts to recover from a 2011 earthquake.

National Cathedral hallway

Richard Kurin: What do you do as the Chief Stone Mason?

Joseph Alonso: Well, as you can see, there’s a lot of stone around here. So, I’m in charge of all the masonry, all the limestone, pretty much the structure of the cathedral—keeping it maintained, repairing the damage from the earthquake. We still add stone carvings on the building. There’s still unfinished sculptures. So, those sorts of things.

RK: You must get asked, either by friends or relatives or even passing tourists that you encounter, what makes a Gothic cathedral Gothic? What are the distinctive features or characteristics? Obviously, this is not a skyscraper made of glass and steel and concrete.

JA: Yeah, it’s the Gothic style of architecture that was started way back in the Middle Ages in Europe, and we are based on 14th-century English and French Gothic. It’s a combination in this cathedral. The French cathedrals are known for their high height, and the English cathedrals for their length. And this is kind of a combination of the two. Again, this is a real, load-bearing, masonry-structured, Gothic structure, so the flying buttresses that you see on the exterior are actually holding the walls in, and the vaulted ceilings that you see inside are real, segmented, vaulted ceilings like were built in the Middle Ages. I’ve been to medieval cathedrals in Europe and walked and crawled through them, and it’s amazing. This is a real Gothic building. I mean, we kind of copied a little bit, but I’ll stack this one up against any of the great European cathedrals.

RK: So, it seems like, given the fact that the cathedral is built the way it is, you need to be, as a stone mason, part architect, part engineer, part artist. How do you think about those various skills that you bring to the job?

JA: Yeah, because really what you are working with when you’re laying these big blocks of stone, these incredibly carved pieces of stone, some of these gargoyles, grotesques, statuary—you’re handling works of art, really. You’re handling hand-cut, hand-carved works of art every day.

RK: So, tell me about grotesques and gargoyles. What’s the differences between them?

JA: Well, the gargoyles everybody knows about are what drain the rooves. Gargoyles have the pipe coming through their mouth. There’s actually one right below us. See the spout right here? So, the water comes off of this roof, into that drain, and out the gargoyle’s mouth. The grotesques, actually, there’s one right over there. The grotesques are smaller carvings that are usually at the base of a pier or a sloped structure, and although they don’t have a pipe in their mouth, they still act as a way to shed the rainwater off the building. The water runs down, hits the little grotesque, and then is shed off instead of running straight down the wall. And I think the most famous grotesque that we have on this cathedral is Darth Vader. He’s carved opposite of us on the North Tower. Yeah, he’s up there.

RK: I know there’s a grotesque or a gargoyle of Vince Palumbo, one of the stone carvers. Didn’t he do one of himself?

JA: Yeah, the great stone carver, Vince Palumbo. He’s immortalized, actually, on this tower, just opposite from where we’re sitting. There’s a grotesque of Vince’s big, bushy mustache holding a carving hammer—and another a great stone carver, an Englishman named Patrick Plunkett. Patrick’s immortalized over here. There’s a great gargoyle on the north side, not too far off the ground—maybe 30 feet up—a caricature of Roger Morigi. Remember Roger?

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RK: I remember Roger.

JA: Roger, the cathedral’s master stone carver—this fiery, little Italian guy. I knew him. And the story is one of the carvers would not let anyone up on the scaffold for the several weeks that he was up there working on this carving, and then when he finished it, he took Roger up there and it was a caricature of Roger up there holding his hammer. You can see it from the ground. He’s holding his hammer, chisels. He’s got his little hat that he used to wear. Now, he carved Roger as a little demon. He’s got horns sticking out of his head and a tail and a cloven foot and all. But, Roger was actually very flattered by it. And the best part was Roger had a temper. If you look closely, there’s a mushroom cloud erupting over his head. Some of my favorites—in one of the cloisters out here on the north side—these column capitals that show Native Americans, Eskimos. Oh, on the south side, here, there’s some really neat faces of all the ethnicities of the world—people. And again, you can see them from the ground. They’re not too far off. The 112 gargoyles that are on this building—they’re just unbelievable works of art. They kind of let the carvers use their imaginations on the exterior, and then of course you go inside the cathedral and there’s just incredibly beautiful statuary.

RK: So, you’ve been facing a big challenge with the earthquake of 2011. Behind us, we see the scaffolding on the Bell Tower. This is a big project. What’s entailed in that? Were you worried that the cathedral would come down? Did you worry that it was irreparably damaged?

JA: Well, when it happened, I was here, and yeah, my gosh. Who would’ve thought an earthquake—and when it was happening, for those 58 seconds that it happened, a 5.8 Richter scale, we were just concerned, making sure that people got out of the building safely because we didn’t know the amount of the damage, the extent of the damage. I saw pieces of stone falling; I heard them striking the rooves. And then when it was all over, we began assessing it. The cathedral was pretty heavily damaged, but I will say, structurally, the building remains sound. What really took the brunt of the earthquake—of course, being a Gothic building, you’ve got these slender pinnacles and spires and flying buttresses—and all that energy working its way up through the massive walls and the piers, which sustain that, had to go somewhere.

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And the higher it went, and those slender pinnacles that you see on top of these towers, that energy kept going, going, going, until—Boom! It just popped through it. And that’s why you see the damage at the top of this tower and a lot of the slender pinnacles. That’s where the energy finally released itself and damaged the stones. Stones fell off, and it was $34 million dollars in damages is the estimate, and every year now for the last almost seven years, we’ve been tackling, as the money comes in, just a little project here, another project there. And we’re kind of working our way around the building, repairing it. But I will say, the building did remain structurally sound, although it did sustain a lot of damage.

RK: Going in the future, how do you hope people look at your contribution to making this National Cathedral the amazing, amazing building and institution it is?

JA: Yeah, it’s true: The day up on that scaffold, September 29, 1990, I said I was with a bunch of ghosts of masons. Because I think 83 years of construction, there were people that spent their entire lives and careers working on here and knew they would never see the building completed. And I was very aware, being up there, going, “Wow.” Maneuvering this final stone into place with that same trowel that was used in 1907. Just the history and all the people down there and President Bush down there. So I was very aware of the history. Especially monumental buildings like this one and other monumental buildings here in Washington and around the world—you know this building’s not some office building that’s going to get torn down in 30 years after it depreciates. This is here and it’s our turn to take care of it. It’s our turn for these years to do the best we can, and you pass it off to the next generation. And that’s how all of these buildings have moved along over the years. Just take care of it and you pass it on.

RK: Thank you for the wonderful work that you’ve done for the cathedral, for the country, and the many people who enjoy this treasured building.

JA: You’re very welcome.

This article is from the series The Great Tours: Washington, D.C., taught by Professor Richard Kurin, Ph.D.