Cathedral tour spotlights gargoyles and grotesques up close

WASHINGTON – They are angelic and mischievous.

They are earthly and heavenly.

And they are all watching as visitors move around the grounds of the National Cathedral.

They are the gargoyles and grotesques that decorate the exterior of the building often referred to as the nation’s church.

And yes, there is a difference between a gargoyle and a grotesque. Andy Uhl, a stone carver at the National Cathedral explains that gargoyles are actually functional.

“Gargoyles are stones that have a hole bored through them, or a channel that goes through their back. And the idea is to remove water from the roofline.”

Uhl explains gargoyles actually keep water from accumulating at the building’s foundation, “There was a definite purpose to them.”

In contrast, a grotesque, like the carving of Darth Vader that decorates the cathedral, is purely ornamental.

This summer, visitors can get an up-close and personal tour of the gargoyles at the National Cathedral. Thursday morning, a special preview tour was offered, and Uhl was among those leading people on the grounds.

Uhl stopped the group along one side of the church to spotlight a couple of gargoyles. “There’s a carver depicted hanging on the corner,” he said, pointing at the figure whose lips were pursed. “He’s whistling at the passing schoolgirls” and just inches away, Uhl points out the a carving of a clergyman, who has reacted to the stone carver’s whistling with dismay. The carved figure holds his face in his hands, “He’s just mortified, you know.”

Uhl explained that many of the carved faces are familiar — that’s because the stone carvers took some artistic license and made caricatures of each other. “If someone had a big mouth, they’d enlarge the mouth, if someone had wild curly hair, just like in any caricatures, you’d exaggerate the already obvious features.” Uhl explained it was a way to poke fun at each other, but also honor each other for the work they shared.

Uhl’s attachment to the cathedral is deep. Not only did he carve some of the figures on the building decades ago, but he was there, working on the front steps on August, 2011, when an earthquake struck that measured 5.8 on the Richter scale.

He describes feeling a sudden sawing motion of the ground under his feet, “I heard a lot of booms and bangs.” Then suddenly, there was another noise — “a loud, deep groan of the building,” that Uhl says is hard to describe. He likens it to the groaning of large ships scraping against each other “It was a really strange kind of ominous sound.”

And once it was certain that the area was safe, he returned as part of a team to assess the damage. “I didn’t think it was going to affect me the way it did. It was hard to witness. It was like getting punched in the stomach, it really was.”

The recovery work is continuing. Jim Shepherd, director of Preservation and Facilities, told the crowd of visitors the damage totaled roughly $26 million.

The Washington Monument reopened this month. Like the cathedral, the Washington Monument was damaged in the earthquake, but the complexity of the cathedral’s architecture means repairs will stretch on for some time.

“It’s going to be a long haul, but we’re excited that this first phase is underway,” Shepherd said. “During the earthquake, the towers pulled away from the building.” Added, other sections of the building experienced tension, “If you can imagine, stone doesn’t perform well in tension. When you pull stone, it cracks.”

Aside from the repairs to the cathedral, there are other changes coming, including the installation of a caf