Capstone's placement ends 83 years of toil, fulfills original plan for Washington

September 30, 1990|By Luther Young | Luther Young,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- When the last stone was fitted atop the St Paul Tower of the Washington National Cathedral yesterday, the Gothic masterwork of gleaming Indiana limestone didn't change much in appearance.

But final brushstrokes are like that. The ceremony was a powerful, joyous symbol for President Bush, area church leaders and 10,000 spectators gathered outside in the autumn sunshine to mark the completion of the cathedral 83 years to the day after it was begun.

"We have constructed here this symbol of our nation's spiritual life, overlooking the center of our nation's secular life," Mr. Bush said. "A symbol which combines the permanence of stone and of God, both of which will outlast men . . . and memories."

Located on the capital's highest hill, Mount St. Alban, along Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest Washington, it overlooks the Capitol and the White House in the Potomac River valley below and was described by the president as "this astonishing place of stone and light."

The official name is Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, the seat for the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church U.S.A. as well as headquarters of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

But the Most Rev. Edmond Lee Browning, presiding bishop, said yesterday that the cathedral was the fulfillment of Pierre L'Enfant's original 1791 plan for the city of Washington, which called for a "great church for national purposes."

The National Cathedral hosted inaugural prayers for Presidents Bush and Reagan. Bells peal on national holidays; a service of Thanksgiving was held upon release of the hostages from Iran. There were funerals for Presidents Truman and Eisenhower and for Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last Sunday sermon there.

"It's a place where the history of the cathedral and of the country have been interwoven," said Mr. Bush, an Episcopalian. He added that America "comes here" when the country needs to grieve, to understand, to celebrate.

And so it has been since the first part of the cathedral, the Bethlehem Chapel, opened in 1912. The cornerstone was laid Sept. 29, 1907, when a similar-sized crowd stood in a light rain and heard President Theodore Roosevelt wish "Godspeed in the work begun this noon."

Work on the cathedral was halted during the two world wars and stopped again from 1976 to 1980 because of a shortage of funds. Canon Leonard Freeman, a cathedral official, said there were times when "completion seemed like a dream that would never be realized."

Yesterday, among the special guests seated at the cathedral were six spry ladies -- including sisters Cora Martin, 88, and Hilda Griffith, 90, from Arlington, Va. -- and 95-year-old Taylor Eiker, all of whom attended the 1907 ceremony on an open hill a world away from today's highly developed Washington.

"I feel like I'm a small part of it, like one of the stones in it," said Mr. Eiker, who was 12 years old then and a member of the boys' choir that sang for the occasion. "There's so much life in this building, you can feel it."

He joined the dignitaries and the thousands standing on the lawn of the 53-acre cathedral site as they looked heavenward for the placement of the finial stone, a cross-shaped 1,000-pound capstone fashioned by master stone carver Vincent Palumbo into a fleur-de-lis.

It was destined for the 200-foot-high southwest pinnacle of the St. Paul Tower, which brackets the cathedral's west end with its twin, the St. Peter Tower. For decades this main entrance -- the most visible to passers-by on Wisconsin Avenue -- was obscured by scaffolding.

The pinnacle, one of four on each tower, was dedicated as the National Cathedral Association Great Pinnacle to honor the group that was instrumental in raising the $65 million construction cost through private contributions.

And high above the crowd was Canon Richard T. Feller, known as the clerk of the works, the cathedral official who has supervised construction for the last 37 years.

Wired to a loudspeaker system so all could hear his directions to the crane operator, he joyfully yelled, "Bull's-eye!" when the stone slipped into position and waved his hard hat at the president's thumbs-up sign.

Watching below was Mr. Palumbo, the Italian carver who has spent the last 30 years supervising a crew of 14 and has carved many of the huge cathedral's gargoyles and angels and other decorative stones.

"I look at this, I see a part of my life," said Mr. Palumbo, the only carver remaining at the National Cathedral now that the job is done. "And that feels good."

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