National Cathedral's preservation needs top $50M

By Brett Zongker

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 14 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — It's where the nation's capital gathers to mourn, to pray and to seek comfort during tragedies. Now the Washington National Cathedral needs help weathering its own financial emergency.

The church has long been a spiritual center for the nation, drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors and worshippers each year. It's the burial site of President Woodrow Wilson and for Helen Keller. It's hosted funeral services for Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and other presidents. And during ordeals such as the Sept. 11 attacks, it's been a place for interfaith reflection.

But the Episcopal cathedral is facing one of the worst financial binds of its 105-year-old history. An earthquake in August severely damaged its intricate stone work and architecture, with repair costs estimated at $20 million. Aside from that damage, the structure faces $30 million in preexisting preservation needs.

Even before the earthquake, a financial crisis forced the cathedral to slash its operating budget from $27 million to as little as $13 million in recent years and cut its paid staff from 170 full-time employees to 70. The church relies heavily on donations to fund its operations.

Still, cathedral officials say the financial problems won't close the church. The building is stable, and repairs will be made as funds are available.

"It may take five years. It may take 10 years. It might take 20 years. But we will do this, with God's help," said Andrew Hullinger, senior director of finance and administration.

Cathedral officials tell The Associated Press they are partnering with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to boost its national marketing and fundraising efforts, while they also pursue efforts of their own to increase visitor traffic and donations. The formation of the partnership helps offset the news that a request for repair money was recently rejected by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

The National Trust is designating the cathedral a "national treasure" that is critically threatened. The trust expects to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars in staff time for consulting and technical expertise.

"So many people see the cathedral as the landmark in Washington that it is in the nation's daily life, but they don't often think about what it takes to preserve a place like that," said David Brown, the trust's executive vice president.

Since the earthquake, fundraising for operations has outpaced donations for repairs. Officials recently announced they had raised $2 million for earthquake repairs and $5 million for the annual operating budget, inching toward recovery.

Months after the 5.8-magnitude earthquake, scaffolding remains atop the 330-foot central tower — a reminder of the pinnacles and hand-carved stonework that cracked and crashed onto the roof. Much of the damage occurred on older parts of the gothic church built in sections over 83 years, beginning in 1907.

The resident head stonemason, Joseph Alonso, has called it "one big piece of sculpture" because of its hand-carved architectural details. Uniquely American touches include a moon rock showcased in a stain glass window and a sculpture of Darth Vader, designed by a child.

More than 2 tons of stonework have been removed from the highest tower to be repaired or replicated. Major cracks also formed during the earthquake, and mortar rained down from the 100-foot-high ceiling inside. Safety nets still stretch overhead even as services have resumed.

Mayor Vincent Gray requested $15 million in FEMA funds under a disaster declaration, but cathedral officials learned the request was rejected last week because FEMA's regulations generally bar aid to religious institutions.

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