Scaffolding on top of the National Cathedral

Scaffolding on top of the National Cathedral

This week, people around the world watched as Paris’ Notre Dame burned. The medieval Catholic cathedral was in the midst of a major renovation on its spires when its roof caught on fire. The blaze led some Washingtonians to reflect on the vulnerability of the District’s major landmarks and monuments, some of which are currently being renovated.

We check in on the renovations at the National Cathedral and Washington Monument, and explore just how resilient some of the region’s most well-known sites are.

Produced by Mark Gunnery



  • 12:00:11

    KOJO NNAMDIYou are tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast what it means for a neighborhood when a local business staple like bars, restaurants, and grocery stores shut down. But first earlier this week people around the world watch as Paris's Notre Dame Cathedral burned. The medieval catholic cathedral was in the midst of a major renovation on its spires leading some Washingtonians to reflect on the vulnerability of the District's major landmarks and monuments some of which are also in the process of being restored.

  • 12:00:46

    KOJO NNAMDIToday on the show we check in on the renovations currently being done on the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral and explore just how resilient some of the region's most famous sites are. Joining me in studio is Mikaela Lefrak. She is WAMU's Arts and Culture Reporter and host of WAMU's "What's With Washington" podcast. Mikaela, always a pleasure.

  • 12:01:06


  • 12:01:07

    NNAMDIWashington is home to the National Cathedral, which has had scaffolding up for years. This after the 2011 earthquake damaged it. How extensive was that damage and how expensive is it to restore?

  • 12:01:18

    LEFRAKRight. So, I'm sure, Kojo, you remember the 2011 earthquake. We don't get them very often.

  • 12:01:22

    NNAMDII was on the air when it occurred.

  • 12:01:24

    LEFRAKYou were?

  • 12:01:25

    NNAMDIAs a matter of fact, yes. Speaking with a guest and we felt the building on Brandywine Street moving and I couldn't figure out what it was and restrained my urge to run out of the studio until the earthquake passed.

  • 12:01:37

    LEFRAKWell, for -- ironically I was in San Francisco not experiencing an earthquake when it happened here.

  • 12:01:44

    NNAMDIGood for you.

  • 12:01:45

    LEFRAKBut, yes. So this earthquake in 2011, a 5.8 magnitude and it damaged a lot of the city's landmarks including the Washington Monument and the National Cathedral, caused $34 million in damage. So extremely extensive and it severely damaged three of the four pinnacles in the gothic cathedral. It jarred columns out of place and kind of famously had knocked a 350 pound hunk of stone off the northwest tower, which was apparently stolen the night after the earthquake, which I'm not really sure how someone makes away with 350 pounds of stone.

  • 12:02:26

    LEFRAKSo it's a lot of work that has to done and it's going to cost a lot of money. The cathedral has been fundraising to raise that money ever since the earthquake and they've raised about $15 million that's all gone towards reconstruction. But they still have $19 million to go. So they think it's going to take about another decade to finish all this work.

  • 12:02:45

    NNAMDIYou spent some time last winter on the scaffolding with the head stoneman when working on the renovations, Joe Alonso, who told you that this was quoting here, "probably going to be the biggest stone restoration in this country." What kind of work are stonemasons in particular doing at the National Cathedral?

  • 12:03:02

    LEFRAKYes. He said the only bigger project that he could imagine is if the sphinx had to get repaired and to recarve that. So it's a massive undertaking and these -- Joe and his team are doing a lot of really fascinating work to fix the cathedral. It was built throughout the 20th century by largely Italian stonemasons, who immigrated here and, you know, brought their traditional tools and carving practices. And Joe and the two guys that he works with are working in this masonry shop to kind of recreate a lot of this work using traditional methods to make it look as similar as possible to what the original guys made. And then they're hoisting it back up and reinstalling it on top of these towers.

  • 12:03:52

    NNAMDIFixing the stonework is not the only thing happening at the cathedral. It's also in the first phase of a three phase fire and safety plan.

  • 12:04:00


  • 12:04:00

    NNAMDIWhat does that plan look like and is there any indication that the Notre Dame fire will have any effect on the pace of renovations at the National Cathedral?

  • 12:04:09

    LEFRAKSure. So it's a $3.4 million project to kind of upgrade the cathedral to modern building code. So about 80 percent of the spaces that require sprinklers have them right now, but 20 percent don't. So they're installing sprinklers. They're putting in emergency lighting. You know, nothing enormously drastic. And, of course, it's important to keep in mind that National Cathedral, the building was begun in 1907, Notre Dame was begun in 1160, so very very different structures. And the National Cathedral in a lot of ways is much more fire resistant than those older cathedrals.

  • 12:04:48

    NNAMDIThere's a new initiative to raise funds for the National Cathedral renovation that involves Lego blocks. What's that all about?

  • 12:04:55

    LEFRAKYes. So this -- I love this. It's a total shtick, but they're doing it great. The National Cathedral is creating a to scale model of the cathedral made out of 400 to 500,000 Legos and it's a fund raising initiative. You can buy a brick for two bucks and install it in this cathedral model. And it's going to be about the size of a minivan when it's done. So far they've raised about $32,000 from that.

  • 12:05:21

    NNAMDIBut you're going to get some help installing it when you buy your brick, won't you?

  • 12:05:23

    LEFRAKYes. They will help you. You can't just put it in Willy-nilly, because it's incredibly detailed. They have, you know, the famous Bethlehem Chapel in there. They have the rose window, one of the famous stained glass windows. Yeah. So you can't just go messing around with it.

  • 12:05:39

    NNAMDIWhich was my hope.

  • 12:05:40

    LEFRAKI know.

  • 12:05:41

    NNAMDIAnother local landmark damaged in the 2011 earthquake is the Washington Monument, which has been closed for repairs and renovations. This week the National Park Service announced that the reopening of the Washington Monument has been delayed. It was supposed to reopen this spring, but now it appears it won't be opened until August. What kind of renovations are they working on there and why the delay in reopening it?

  • 12:06:02

    LEFRAKYeah. So it has been tough to go to the top of the Washington Monument ever since the earthquake. It was closed for years and covered in scaffolding. And now they closed it in August 2016, because they're doing two things. They're building a new security screening facility for visitors to replace a temporary one that they built after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. And they're also building a new elevator, because the original elevator, if you remember, is constantly breaking down. People would have to walk down 900 steps, a bit of a mess.

  • 12:06:34

    NNAMDIIt's not the down that was the problem. It was the up.

  • 12:06:35

    LEFRAKIt's the up. I know. It's your workout. So it's delayed. It was supposed to open this spring, but they just announced it's not going to be until August if not later because there is contaminated soil in the little grassy knoll that the monument sits on that was apparently introduced in the late 1800s when the monument was being completed. And so they're going to kind of put a protective metal layer over the soil, kind of out of abundance of caution. It's not going to, you know, it's not going to make you sick or anything.

  • 12:07:06

    NNAMDIIn a region with so many historically significant landmarks, whose responsibility is it to restore sites like the National Cathedral? I'm assuming that's the Episcopal Church and the Washington Monument? The monument, for example, though publically owned, had a chunk of the repairs paid for by a local philanthropist.

  • 12:07:23

    LEFRAKRight. And I think it's interesting. So a lot people assume that this is just, you know, immediately the job of the federal government. But it's a real hodgepodge of federal funds and sponsorships from companies and private donations. A lot of the funding for restoring the Washington Monument came from David Rubenstein, who's this billionaire philanthropist from Bethesda and he cofounded the assets management firm the Carlyle Group. And he's funded everything from the National Zoo's Panda Program to the Kennedy Center to the Lincoln Memorial. He gave $18 million to restore the Lincoln Memorial a couple of years ago. And he's splitting the cost of repairs to the Washington Monument with the federal government.

  • 12:08:04

    NNAMDIAnother landmark that's damaged is the Tidal Basin, which is visited by 36 million people each year. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service recently launched an effort called "Save The Tidal Basin." Why do they say the Tidal Basin needs saving?

  • 12:08:21

    LEFRAKWell, first of all I feel like the D.C. Tourism Board is going to call us, because we're making it sound like everything in the city is crumbling to pieces.

  • 12:08:28

    NNAMDIIt's falling apart.

  • 12:08:28

    LEFRAKBut I mean, somethings kind of are. So the Tidal Basin, there's a couple issues with it right now. I mean, of course, we just hit cherry blossom season and we get about 36 million people coming to see the cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin every year. That's a lot of foot traffic and the concrete wall around the basin is crumbling. The pads are really too small for that number visitors to fit, and also the basin itself is sinking due to climate change. It's sinking back into the Potomac, so a lot of issues there. And there's a couple of different groups, the Park Service, the Trust for the National Mall that are trying to raise awareness about this and to fund raise. They're saying repairs could cost upwards of $500 million.

  • 12:09:13

    NNAMDIWe did a show about the Tidal Basin last week, a week ago today on the 10th of April. You can go to our website if you'd like to check it out at Mikaela Lefrak is the WAMU Arts and Culture Reporter. She's also host of WAMU's "What's With Washington?" podcast. Mikaela, see you soon at a ping pong table somewhere near us.

  • 12:09:33

    LEFRAKOh, God. I got to practice. Thanks, Kojo.

  • 12:09:36

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, what it means for a neighborhood when a local business staple like a bar or a restaurant or a grocery store shuts down. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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