Thanks to last August’s earthquake, the longest-spanning construction project in D.C. is under construction yet again. But on Saturday, for the first time since the 5.8 temblor lightly shook the region, the Washington National Cathedral opened its most imposing structure to more than 400 visitors for a “tower climb.” “That short earthquake did tens of millions of dollars of damage to the building,” said Chris Budny, a docent who’s volunteered at the cathedral for 17 years. The quake harmed three of the tower’s four pinnacles, although you can’t tell from the inside. “As they’re climbing, if people are looking to see big holes in the wall, they’re not going to see that because it was the exterior elements that were most badly damaged—especially at the very roof of this tower,” Budny says.
Outside and on the ground, however, the top six feet of two of the 30-foot pinnacles are on display in pieces. Work has begun on the estimated $20 to $30 million in damage, all of which must come through donations and gifts. (The cathedral’s insurance does not cover earthquake damage. Cue the “act of God” jokes.) Some decorative dutchman repairs have already been made, but it’ll be a while before the cathedral is fully restored. “They’re going to be working from the front to the back and everywhere in between probably over the next seven to 10 years,” Budny said.
Right now, workers are tearing down the damaged section of the central tower, cataloging the stone, and determining what can be salvaged. While this part of the cathedral sustained the worst damage from the earthquake, the tower was deemed safe for this weekend’s climb—-up 333 steps, leading to the highest view in the city. At the top, members of the Washington Ringing Society yanked ropes hanging from ceiling in order to sound the peal bells above. The bells range from 600 to 3,600 pounds. “It looks easy when you see it done by people who know what they’re doing, but it takes time to learn how to do it safely and correctly,” said Quilla Roth, who’s been ringing for 45 years.
Just down a spiral staircase, Edward Nassor, the cathedral’s carillonneur, rang the carillon by striking a keyboard in the bell tower. Unlike the more rhythmic peal bells, the carillon plays melodies.
The earthquake severed the connection between some of the bells and the keyboard. The instrument, officially named the Kibbey Carillon, is playable now, but it’s only because a temporary fix. For now, the carillon has to be handled with care. Not that it sounds any less majestic than usual. “It’s tied for third heaviest carillon in the world,” Nassor said.
Photos by Ashley Dejean