Washington's Magnificent Anachronism

Gargoyles and grotesques they certainly are not -- these beautiful forms of men and women emerging from the void and darkness that were "upon the face of the deep."

"I think this guy Rick Hart is one of the greatest sculptors of classic sculpture we have today or are going to have for the future," says Vincent Palumbo, master carver of the National Cathedral in Washington.

"You can see from the expression of those human bodies, the details he put in them, they tell you. I don't know how to say it -- not the agony, but the floating, the emerging from nothing. I feel like I'm working on a live person coming out of the stone."

This powerful masterwork taking shape in the dust of the carver's art is the principal carving of the cathedral's front facade. Directly below the "rose window of light," it forms the tympanum, or recessed face, of the Gothic arch above the main west portal.

In ages to come, all who enter the cathedral through its central bronze gates into the long, vaulted nave soaring to its apex will pass under this monumental depiction of creation.

Sarah Booth Conroy, design editor for the Washington Post, writes in Horizon magazine, "It is without question the major architectural sculpture of our day. It is the most important artwork in the Washington Cathedral. . . ." And, except for the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, where stonecutting resumed last year after a 38-year hiatus, the National Cathedral, on Mount St. Alban in the nation's capital, is the only Gothic cathedral being constructed anywhere.

Although Washington Cathedral, also called the National Cathedral, is an Episcopal cathedral and the seat of the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Washington, it ministers to all faiths, has no regular congregation of communicants, and is supported entirely by private contributions. It receives no funds from either the national Episcopal Church or the federal government. It is in fact what Pierre L'Enfant had envisioned when he called for "a great church for national purposes" in his plan for the city, and what Congress intended when in 1893 it granted a charter to establish the church.

In an interview with the Monitor, sculptor Frederick (Rick) Hart explains that "sculpture and architecture work best together under two conditions: Either the sculpture and architecture are perfectly harmonious, or they are in a state of tension, where they offset each other. This is an example of the latter, because you have this massive, severe facade, then this wild, flamboyant explosion of sculpture. They will play against each other very nicely."

The sculpture's broad, free-flowing horizontal thrusts are in striking contrast to the exaggerated verticality of traditional Gothic statuary found elsewhere in the cathedral, whose purpose is to carry the eye upward.

Mr. Hart describes the tympanum, his very first major work as a sculptor, as "an evocation of the whole community of man struggling to be born and formed as a group out of the torrential void of creation."

His figures, astounded, startled, partly disbelieving what is happening to them, give the impression of being forced into being from the surface of a swirling mass of turbulent waves. Their heads and arms stand free from the face of the stone.

Many earlier sculptural works have been done with a figure partly emerged from a block of stone, the figure active, the stone static. "Here," the artist points out, "there is a different relationship between the two -- a very important dynamic between the unknown formlessness, which is forceful and vigorous, in tension with the active, representational figure."

Though the style itself is not modern, the sculptor feels deeply that its concept is, since it deals with timeless questions:

"Why are we here? What is the force that brought us here? It poses those questions and answers them," he believes. "Because even though you don't see God -- and that's the beauty of the thing, in the sense that I am not making up some old man with a beard who is kind and all-knowing and all-doing -- you feel His presence in the formative process. That hint of purpose and reassurance is what elevates the entire concept of the work."

However, unless stone carving, one of the world's oldest crafts, takes an unexpected turn for the better, Hart's masterwork may be the last or one of the last major milestones in this vanishing art.

The two carvers who are releasing these dynamic figures from their Indiana limestone genesis, Mr. Palumbo of Italy and Patrick J. Plunkett of England, say that never before has either seen an artistic stonework being created to equal the magnitude of this piece, which is 19 feet high, 21 feet wide, and nearly a yard deep and is expected to take 3 1/2 to 4 years to complete. The artist's clay model alone weighed almost two tons. The stone itself, like the plaster model which the carvers are duplicating, is divided into a jigsaw of 28 pieces.

In an interesting twist, young Mr. Plunkett, a stonecutter from Salisbury Cathedral, came to Washington Cathedral because he could learn more about sophisticated carving here than in Europe, the birthplace of cathedrals. He regards his role in Hart's "Ex Nihilo" (the title of the tympanum) as "an opportunity of a lifetime. It's almost unreal to think I am getting a chance to work on something so enormous."

Beneath this central work is the only part of Hart's whole theme that is now complete -- a statue of Adam, symbolizing creation of individual man. In a niche to the right of the main portal will be the sculptor's "Transformation of St. Paul." To the left of the center portal is a niche that will hold his portrayal of St. Peter. (The cathedral's formal name is the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul.)

"None of these are literal depictions," the sculptor explains. "They are all metaphorical images for creation as a continuous phenomenon of divine evolution and revelation. . . . The whole concept is creation not as a static, one-time event, but as an ongoing process, an unfolding of the universe."

He says he doesn't think of this work on creation as religious in the conventional, ecclesiastical, Gothic mode of saints, angels, gargoyles, and so forth.

"To me, this is such a powerful concept of the nature of life itself, such a profound philosophical statement, aside from its religious quality, that I would have done it anyway, whether it had been for a church or not. . . ."

In his mid-20s, Mr. Hart came to the cathedral from Atlanta as a stone carver to gain a disciplined background in sculpture. Seven years later, he was weary of taking all those millions of "points" with the measuring device that carvers use to help them transpose the design from the plaster model to stone. So he opened a studio and began sketching models for the tympanum.

Like the figures in his "Creation," Hart emerged all of a piece as a fully developed artist out of a time of intense struggle.

It took him three years just to win this commission in an international competition that pitted him against a dozen or so of the best sculptors in the world.

"For three years I did preliminary studies, lived in a little garage, and half-starved," he says. "It was very unlikely that I was going to do it because the cathedral goes after top-name people, and I was just a kid.

"But I was convinced I was destined to do this. . . . I was trying to mature as an artist, find out what I had to say, what I thought art was, what I thought life was all about. This contest coincided perfectly with that particular growth on my part."

He had an image in his mind. And his experience with the creative process, he says, is that "it starts as a conviction. It is sort of an amorphous sense, a tiny diamond-sized light that you are faithful to. You are constantly using a trial-and-error approach to make that light grow into something that is true to itself."

There are thousands of small decorative pieces on the exterior of a cathedral such as finials and crockets (Gothic-style leaves) which any secondary carver could fashion. But the anatomical carving called for in the creation tympanum demands the highest skill of the artist-carver.

The irony facing the Palumbo-Plunkett team is that despite the talents and skills they possess that enable them to handle what Mr. Palumbo calls "this mastodon" of a job, they find it hard to make a living. Mr. Palumbo moonlights in his studio at home to make ends meet.

"The cathedral pays us a good salary," he concedes, "but in general it does not compensate us for the years we have studied, apprenticed, and sacrificed. Bricklayers, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, all make more money than we do. . . . What we make here is not enough to support the family."

For five generations, the Palumbos of Molfetta in the province of Bari, Italy , have been practicing the art of stone carving. Mr. Palumbo emigrated to America in 1961 and began work immediately on the National Cathedral, joining his father and a team of a dozen others.

Father and son worked together under Roger Morigi, the cathedral's master carver, ascending dizzying heights on wooden ladders, climbing through the petals of a rose window to reach their work, spending years on scaffolding 125 feet above the floor of the nave carving the big bosses, those ponderous keystones that punctuate the whole length of the nave's ceiling where its branching ribs connect.

Mr. Palumbo Sr. passed on in 1966. Since then, Mr. Morigi and all the other men Vincent first worked with have retired one by one. Now Vincent himself is foreman. But his crew has shriveled to only himself, Mr. Plunkett, and one stonecutter, Carlo Donofrio.

Mr. Palumbo has three daughters but no sons. Even if he had a son, he says, "I would never teach him to carve for a living, only as a hobby."

There simply isn't enough demand for architectural carving to give a person steady work. Time was in America when no public building of any importance went up without its ration of carved lions' heads, shields, or other stone ornamentation to beautify its facade. Mr. Morigi, for example, worked on the tympanum figures in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington. Some of the other carvers came to the cathedral after completing work on the Lincoln Memorial.

Even today's fashion for steel and glass boxes has not been able to quench the desire and talent to do stonework in America. Just last year, Mr. Palumbo told a newspaper reporter the cathedral had no money to pay for apprentices. His statement got garbled into "We can't find any apprentices." Within a week, more than 100 letters poured in from all over the United States applying for the nonexistent openings. "If they have somebody to train them for a few months, they could be good carvers," Mr. Palumbo feels.

Richard T. Feller, who has been with the cathedral for 27 years, is clerk of the works, a title of distinction dating back to medieval times. That means he administers the cathedral's construction and artistic work. His own job description of the position is "an oiler of wheels." From 1970 to 1977, when the cathedral was forging ahead in a great burst of construction to complete the nave, every day he was dovetailing the diverse activities of 75 artisans.

A perfectionist who demands the highest standards of excellence, Mr. Feller is also chairman of the cathedral's important building committee, the ultimate arbiter of the whole building process including its works of art. If his job is unique, so are his qualifications: He is a graduate civil engineer with an absorbing interest in art, who once studied for the ministry.

He notes that the change in building methods in America "has been as great in the past 30 years as it was in 300 years during the medieval period."

Thirty years ago, countless buildings were sheathed in brick. But when brick masons priced themselves out of that market, architects found another way. Now they bolt precast walls onto the sides of a steel skeleton.

There's not a shred of steel in a true Gothic cathedral, which is built of stone and glass and is therefore entirely dependent upon skilled craftsmen to put it together.

"The essence of Gothic is that it is built to withstand the forces of gravity ," Mr. Feller explains. "Its arches withstand the thrusts and counterthrusts of the stresses. There are no other structures built like it." And unless the cathedral continues to train its own younger men on the job, the trade will eventually die off. So the fact that stone carvers can no longer make a comfortable living by their trade bears directly on efforts to complete the Washington Cathedral, whose cornerstone was laid in 1907.

In fact, Mr. Feller believes that unless the cathedral resumes construction within five years and continues without interruption, it will never be finished.

"If you are out of construction for about five years, the men drift away or go into other trades to support themselves," he says. "To try to train younger men on a trial-and-error basis with no one available to train them would make the cost of starting up again unreasonably high.

"Most of the craftsmen who have worked on this job were at the peak of their careers when they were here," Mr. Feller says. "They were the tops. That is all we employed -- mature men who had learned their craft well. So when you shut down construction for a period of time, . . . they are going to retire, and fewer and fewer of them will be available."

Mr. Feller quotes his counterpart at Cologne Cathedral in West Germany, who told him recently: "You are racing against time to finish the cathedral before inflation and the disappearance of the crafts stop you. I am racing to repair deteriorated stone in Cologne before portions of the cathedral fall down."

"Out of construction" is precisely where the Washington Cathedral is today. By 1952, construction had passed the halfway mark. In 1965, a goal was set: The nave would be completed in 1979 and the entire construction by 1985. But as America's Bicentennial celebration approached, and the availability of craftsmen continue to decline, this goal was moved up in 1970. The nave and lower half of the west facade were completed and opened in the Bicentennial year, with appropriate celebrations attended by Queen Elizabeth II, President Ford, and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Fund-raising took longer. To reach its 1976 goal, the cathedral changed its longstanding policy and borrowed $10.6 million. By 1977, when those funds were exhausted, construction was abruptly halted in the middle of laying a row of stone. The west facade remains latticed with construction scaffolding. The cathedral's climbing crane still stands at the ready to go back on duty. One visitor, misreading all these signs, exclaimed, "It's a beautiful church! Why are they taking it down?"

What remains to be done to complete the fabric of the cathedral (as distinct from its artistic decoration, which will go on for the foreseeable future) are the Pilgrim Observation Gallery above the west rose window, which will provide visitors with a panoramic view of the city, and the twin towers of St. Peter and St. Paul, planned to rise 234 feet above the west facade. Mr. Feller estimates it will take about six more years to complete this climax of the cathedral's construction phase.

If completion of the building is delayed much longer, the cathedral may risk losing Mr. Feller's expertise.

"If we are going to resume construction and continue to work, I would like to go ahead and finish this cathedral," he says. "Obviously it is dear to my heart. I would like to help set the last stone on that last western tower. But if we finish the Pilgrim Gallery . . . and then shut down permanently, not to build the western towers, then I am going to take early retirement." In any case , he hopes to remain active on the building committee.

About 90 percent of the building's masonry and about 98 percent of its floor space are complete. And although between $40 million and $45 million has been poured into this structure and its artworks so far -- all through private contributions -- dollarwise the cathedral still has about 40 percent of the way to go. An estimated $20 million more is needed. Inflation has had everything to do with running up the price tag.

Artwork on the cathedral is continuing because, as Mr. Feller explains, "We never undertake a work of art until it has already been paid for or funded."

Richly wrought bronze gates, the work of sculptor Ulrich Henn of Germany, have been installed and dedicated recently. And the cathedral continues to add new works to its collection of magnificent stained-glass windows. These include the Space Window, a contemporary design by Rodney Winfield, focused on a slice of the first stone picked up on the moon by the astronauts and presented to the cathedral.

Inflation has been hurting the cathedral in the art field, too. For example, the cathedral hopes to add two more bronze gates at its southwest and northwest portals. But the price of bronze has been rocketing at such a rate that no artist or foundry can predict what the cost will be a few years hence.

Mr. Feller explains his predicament: "We are simply out of stability. When you are talking about artwork that is timeless for the ages that may take three or four years to complete, how can I tell a prospective donor what a pair of bronze doors is going to cost?" The big stained-glass windows that are still to be completed now run about $90,000 each.

It is love that has built this cathedral, Mr. Feller stresses, love for God and man. "If we were only building it as a museum, trying to be larger or better than someone else or trying to put the most amount of money in it, then I would not have spent 27 years here. . . . "One of the greatest heritage this cathedral will give to our nation is that in one place since 1907, a group of people have tried to offer up the finest that they could put together of art, architecture, and craftsmanship to the glory of God."

Hopes for resuming construction rest on whether the cathedral's campaign to raise $15.5 million, which began last year, proves successful. Of these funds, repay the loan and provide additional endowment. Efforts to raise the $18 million needed for the twin towers will be made later in a separate campaign.

So far, the present campaign, directed by Canon Charles A. Perry, the cathedral's provost, has reached the $6.4 million mark, contributed mainly from a small number of large donors. "Ultimately we will be appealing to larger numbers of people," he says.

He expects it will take three more years to raise the money but hopes to begin construction before then. He doesn't despair of finding experienced carvers for the 4,000 finials and crockets that will give the twin towers the lacy look that will make them seem to be soaring skyward.

"You need skills to do that repetitive work," he says, "but it is not the level of skill possessed by Vincent. I don't know how you replace a Vincent Palumbo! Thatm would worry me."

While Canon Perry's challenge is to find enough dollars to complete this "house of prayer for all people," Mr. Palumbo says his challenge as a carver is to bring out the right expression, to sense what the sculptor was feeling when he gave his figures their appearance of life. "That's what we have to put in it. Even if he is in the stone, you've got to make him look alive."

What does Frederick Hart want people to look for in his tympanum? "If it's a success, they won't have to lookm for anything. It will have an immediate effect upon them. It will strike something within them so deeply about their own lives that it will give them an added awareness and faith in an unfolding universe."

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