National Cathedral Assessing ‘Significant Damage'

Of all the District's landmarks, the National Cathedral bears the most visible evidence of Tuesday's 5.8-magnitude earthquake.

The "Gloria in Excelsis" central tower of Washington National Cathedral -- the highest elevated point in Washington -- sustained what cathedral masons are calling "significant damage." Repairs will cost in the millions of dollars, and will take anywhere from months to years to complete.

A joint crew of cathedral stonemasons, structural engineers and an architect spent yesterday assessing the damage, and returned to the task today.

Cathedral officials have already moved an upcoming service honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. to the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. They are still trying to determine whether they will be able to hold Sunday's services, but their longer-range goal is to be open for Sept. 11, said NBC4's Elaine Reyes.

The most severe damage is to the pinnacles (corner spires) on the central tower. "It's mind-boggling what has occurred up there," Mason Foreman Joe Alonso said in a video by The Atlantic.

Most noticeably, about one-third of the southwest pinnacle fell off. The huge piece of concrete, which weighs about 3,000 pounds, is now laying on the roof. Fortunately, the roof, made of poured concrete supported by concrete beams, was able to withstand the impact.

The northwest pinnacle is visibly tilting, noticeable from the ground. It rotated counter-clockwise several inches, causing dust and chunks of stone to fall onto the front steps.

Once crews were able to gain access to the roof, they discovered that the northeast pinnacle rotated severely during the shaking. That pinnacle is cracked and in danger of falling. If it does fall, it will also land on the roof.

The crew has access to the roof via some narrow staircases, said a public relations rep.

Several finials (fleur-de-lis shaped decorations) have fallen from several pinnacles. One finial is laying in the gutter; at least one other was in the grass.

"Cracks have appeared in the flying buttresses around the apse [long, narrow tower] at the cathedral's east end, the first portion of the building to be constructed, but the buttresses supporting the central tower seem to be sound," according to a press release from the cathedral.

One pinnacle on the nave (central approach to the altar) lost its top, and another rotated.

The cathedral's PR rep said the crew had not yet determined whether there was damage to the carillon and peal bells in the central tower. He said he heard a loud crash and clanging bells as he was exiting the cathedral during the earthquake.

The Episcopalian cathedral, which was constructed between 1907 and 1990, is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world, and the second-largest in the United States. Because it's located on Mount St. Alban, the tallest hill in the District, the National Cathedral reaches a greater height than the Washington Monument.

The central tower, which was completed in the 1960s, received a restoration in the late 1990s after repeated lightning damage. It was a "tremendous effort" to get scaffolding set up for that, Alonso said. That restoration mainly involved tuckpointing and mortar removal and repair. Now, though, they will have to rebuild, so crews must determine the best way to hoist heavy stones and remove the damaged ones.

"We've got our work cut out for us," Alonso said in The Atlantic video. He had been the one to lay the final stone in the cathedral when construction finished in 1990.

The National Cathedral is a privately owned nonprofit, and doesn't receive federal or national church funding. Insurance will not cover the earthquake damage, so the cathedral is now accepting donations on its website; you can donate here.

And in case you were worried about the health and safety of the baddest dude in the universe, you can rest assured. "We've checked, and Darth Vader appears to be okay," a staff member tweeted yesterday. The likeness of Luke's father is one of the gargoyles on the northwest tower of the Cathedral.

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