‘Re-capitation’: National Cathedral’s gargoyle gets its head back 12 years after quake rocked DC

The 5.8-magnitude earthquake that famously shook D.C. in 2011 sent the head of a gargoyle atop the Washington National Cathedral flying.

“All that energy was going up the walls,” head mason at the cathedral Joe Alonso said. “Going, going, going — like the cracking of a whip … boom!”

Pinnacles and other stone fixtures were also launched off the sides of the nation’s second largest church during the quake.

“Gothic cathedrals and earthquakes don’t mix,” Alonso mused.

As it turned out, the gargoyle on the southwest pinnacle was the only gothic drainage spout to fully lose its head, earning it the name “Mr. Decapitation.”

“We’ve been calling him ‘D-cap’ for short,” Alonso said. “But today we are going to call him ‘Re-cap.’ You are going to witness a re-capitation.”

The twin towers of the National Cathedral stand without scaffolding after 12 years of repairs following the 2011 earthquake. (WTOP/Luke Garrett)
Head stone mason Joe Alonso wears a hard hat with the amount of money donated and still needed for the repairs at the National Cathedral. (WTOP/Luke Garrett)
The gargoyle named was “Mr. Decapitated” after it lost its head in the 2011 earthquake. (WTOP/Luke Garrett)
A gargoyle formerly known as “Mr. Decapitated” sits with its head re-installed after it fell off in the 2011 earthquake. (WTOP/Luke Garrett)
The National Cathedral’s east towers stand without any scaffolding. (WTOP/Luke Garrett)

Made of Indiana limestone, the bat-like stone face finally rejoined its clawed body on Wednesday — 12 years after the 2011 tremor. Stone masons used a special epoxy to put the gargoyle back together, rushing to marry the two pieces of stone before the epoxy dried.

Dean of the Cathedral Randy Hollerith called the “re-capitation” a milestone but added that the $40 million project isn’t only about giving the cathedral a facelift.

“They’re strengthening the cathedral,” Hollerith said. “They’re strengthening the buttresses and their connections to the nave walls. They’re strengthening every area that they’re working on so that some of the things we experienced in this earthquake, we won’t experience the next time.”

As for the timeline, Alonso said he hopes to complete the scaffolding work around the National Cathedral by 2027.

But Hollerith said that it’s a slow process.

“Everything is carved by our stone masons … so it’s not a quick process,” he said.

So far, church officials have raised $24 million for the project. They said $14 million are still needed.

Luke Garrett

Luke Garrett is a D.C. native dedicated to journalism. He is a reporter and the creator, host and producer of the original WTOP podcast, “DMV Download.” The podcast debuted in 2022. On the show, Garrett takes a weekly look at the biggest stories and ideas in the D.C. region.

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