Tuesday Talks: An Inside Look at National Cathedral Renovations

Photo by Bob Bowie on Unsplash

Architect Michelle Kayon has spent her career working on some of the most iconic and beautifully-built buildings in our nation’s capital.

For 13 years, the Cleveland Park resident held key positions with the Architect of the Capitol, playing an instrumental role in the ongoing renovation of the Cannon House Office Building and the recent restoration of the Capitol Dome.

Before that, she oversaw renovations of the U.S. Dept. of Commerce, the Dept. of Justice, the National Zoo and other sites across Washington, including the Warner Theatre. 

Kayon now serves as the chief architect for Washington’s National Cathedral, the first woman to hold that position in the 114-year history of the institution.

During the last Tuesday Talk webinar on May 19, Kayon talked about her job as the Cathedral’s chief architect, describing some of the projects her and staff are involved in, and how she became the chief architect for the National Cathedral. 

“I had been working at the Capitol on some very big and exciting projects in fantastic buildings,” said Kayon, who holds a Master of Architecture degree from Columbia University. “I couldn’t imagine what job I could possibly do after that job.”

But as Kayon explained, “The Cathedral reached out to me for the position. The chance to work on a true medieval, gothic cathedral is a really great opportunity and an important mission.”

The Cathedral is a massive and wonderfully crafted medieval structure, made up of 150,000 tons of Indiana limestone that reaches more than 300ft. into the sky, stirring feelings of awe and inspiration.

Construction on the building began in 1907 and was not fully completed until 1990. For many, the National Cathedral represents this country’s national house of worship.

Kayon became the chief architect in January of last year, arriving when the Cathedral was undergoing several major architectural and construction projects. This includes a $19 million project to repair and restore damage from a rare earthquake that shook the East Coast in August of 2011.

The earthquake lasted 58 seconds and measured 5.8 on the Richter scale, causing massive damage to the Cathedral.

“No one was hurt, which was really amazing,” said Kayon.

But the earthquake twisted pinnacles, damaged flying buttresses and dislodged stones, which tumbled down. Repairs began soon after the earthquake hit in August 2011, and are now at a halfway point, meaning there is still much repair work to do.

Kayon showed pictures of the ongoing earthquake repair, including a picture of a stonemason carving a replacement stone in the Cathedral’s stone shop. Another picture showed workmen high up on a scaffolding repairing and cleaning gargoyles, which no one had gotten close to since the 1950s.

“Getting up there on scaffolding has given us the opportunity to not only repair what was damaged in the earthquake, but to do other repairs as well,” Kayon said.

Kayon showed a picture of a sculpture of the Archangel Gabriel high up in the Cathedral’s vaulted ceiling. She pointed out that the Archangel’s wings are not visible from the ground but are visible while standing on raised scaffolding.

“When we got up to it we could really see how beautifully crafted the wings are,” she said.

Michelle Kayon, Director of Facilities and Preservation, discusses ongoing and future architectural projects, maintenance, and renovations at the iconic Washington landmark.

The Cathedral Grounds

Kayon provided a quick overview of the Cathedral grounds, saying the Cathedral buildings encompass the Cathedral itself, an administration building, the library, the café, the Church House and the College of Preachers now being renovated as the new Virginia Mae Center. Kayon leads the Cathedral’s Facilities and Preservation Office, and during the webinar she introduced her staff, which includes a facilities manager, two mechanics and an electrician. 

Her staff also includes a head stone mason, two additional masons and one carpenter, who are responsible for earthquake repair and restoration throughout the Cathedral building. 

As part of the most recent phase of earthquake restoration, Kayon’s staff recently restored a section of the Cathedral called the Way of the Peace door, the original entrance to the Cathedral. 

“We not only restored the masonry, but we also restored the beautiful wooden doors,” she said.

Kayon described the Cathedral building as a “true masonry structure,” explaining that the only steel in the building is structural steel supporting the roof.

“There are concrete slabs and concrete support for the towers as well,” she said.

Stained Glass Windows

Kayon also noted that the Cathedral contains beautiful art work – stained glass windows and lunar wrought iron crafted by Samuel Yellin and Albert Paley. The artwork is not independent of the building, she stressed. It lies within the fabric of the structure, enhancing its splendor and beauty.

Kayon talked about the restoration of the Cathedral’s stained glass windows, pointing out that the person now working to restore the windows is the son of the person who restored them before. The craftsmanship, she explained, has passed from father to son, from one generation to the next, “a very rewarding and interesting thing to see,” she said.

When talking about stone masons, Kayon said they are practicing a dying art.

“We are seeking opportunities to teach this art to other people,” she said.

Kayon mentioned the American College of The Building Arts in Charleston, S.C., which has sent interns to learn the masonry craft at the Cathedral.

“We would like to continue to have interns come up here,” she said.

Virginia Mae Center

Kayon and her staff are also hard at work restoring the College of Preachers building, which will become the Cathedral’s newly launched Virginia Mae Center, a center that will house the Cathedral’s College of Faith and Culture.

The stone building, located on Woodley Road, opened in 1929 and served as a spiritual destination for clergy, theologians and laity from across the United States for many years. It eventually became an administration building but has remained dormant since 2008.

“To prepare for this project, a demolition was done on the interior about a year and a half ago,” said Kayon. “Ever since then, we have been working on the architectural plan for its renovation.”

The new Virginia Mae Center will provide space for classes, conferences, festivals, retreats and artisan residences. It will also include a kitchen for meals, a chapel, meeting and residential rooms.

“Everyone is very anxious to have this very vibrant part of our campus come alive,” Kayon said.

Human Rights

The Human Right’s Porch, located on the west side of the Cathedral, is another project Kayon and her staff work on. Its purpose is to honor the dignity of all persons, and it houses carved busts of Mother Teresa, Helen Keller, Eleanor Roosevelt, and civil rights icons Rosa Parks and Jonathan Daniels, among others.

The Human Rights Porch has added a sculpture of human rights activist, author and Holocaust survivor Eli Wiesel to its august collection, and will officially unveil the Wiesel sculpture this fall. 

The Wiesel bust, as well as the others, was sculpted by Chas Fagan and carved by the Cathedral’s in-house mason Sean Callahan.

“The process of carving is a really interesting one,” said Kayon. “It starts as a clay sculpture by the artist and then (Callahan) has a method for transferring that three-dimensional design to the stone.” 

The Human Rights Porch is not open to the public because of Covid-19, but the Cathedral, like other venues in Washington, is starting to open slowly as the city loosens restrictions put in place as a result of the pandemic. Kayon urged viewers to go on the Cathedral website to find out what’s open.

She said Les Colombes, or The Doves exhibit, is open and will be at the Cathedral until August. The exhibit allows visitors to walk beneath a cascading column of 2,000 origami doves bathed in rainbow light from the Cathedral’s stained glass windows. Reservations to see the exhibit can be made on-line.

“It is spectacular, both in the day and at nighttime,” Kayon said.

Jim Arvantes
Jim Arvantes is a writer, editor and photographer living and working in Washington, D.C. He has a particular passion for writing about politics, local business, and health care.