Editor’s note: The head stone mason at the Washington National Cathedral, Joe Alonso was a participant in the 2001 Smithsonian Folklife Festival and is now a featured artisan in the new film Good Work: Masters of the Building Arts, which premieres on PBS in October.
As I think back on my early days in the trade as an apprentice, a few things stand out. First, how difficult the work was (and still is), the amazing structures I got to work on, the people I was around during those years, and how fortunate I was to learn from them. My apprenticeship in Stone and Marble Masons Local 2 D.C. started in 1980 and lasted three years before I was sworn in as a journeyman stone mason, although I would have to honestly say that it took more like ten years before I really considered myself a competent stone mason. I also feel I continue learning something new every day.
I’ve been around stone masonry all my life. My dad was an immigrant from northern Spain, and although he worked in the railyards and steel mills of Gary, Indiana, he was a mason by trade, and I would help him on brick and stone side jobs as a kid. I then worked as a laborer during the summers while in high school. There was something about the trade that appealed to me. When I went to work full time out of high school, I came on as a laborer and mason’s helper and had to prove myself before they requested to the union that I be taken on and granted an apprenticeship.
In those early years, many of the stone masons I worked with came from Italy and Spain or were of other European descent. Another large group was what we call today “The Greatest Generation”—many of them World War II vets who in the 1980s were in their sixties and were approaching the end of their careers. They had come back from the service to the postwar building boom and picked up where they left off or started their apprenticeships at that time.
These men were at the top of their game, forty years or more of experience, and I was able to work alongside them and try and absorb their knowledge and experience. Some were better than others, some nicer than others; you had to make the best of it, and it was hard mental and physical work. All these men and their personalities, their different specialties and skills, contributed to my education as a stone mason.
I moved around a lot during my apprenticeship between contractors and was exposed to many aspects of the trade: dry-stack stone, building stone, paving stones, marble, granite, high-end residential and historic restoration, and big commercial jobs. It was good to be exposed to so many different disciplines of this trade because all of those things combined make one a well-rounded craftsman. You use all of these experiences to make your work better.
The defining moment of my career came in 1985 when I came to work at the Washington National Cathedral. I was fortunate to work on the final phase of its construction, the west towers, and I had the great honor of setting the final stone on September 29, 1990, eighty-three years to the day when the foundation stone was set. I was also blessed to work for Billy Cleland—a legend among the stone masons of Washington, D.C.—my mentor and the man who brought me to the next level of my trade, showing me what true craftsmanship is. I could fill twenty more pages with my thirty-three years at the cathedral and all I’ve learned and continue to learn there.
Every square inch of the cathedral is built to the highest standards of craftsmanship. There is a sense of history all around me, and I am constantly aware of the generations of craftsmen who came before me. Their skills were passed down in the classical tradition from master to apprentice, and it was a community of craftsmen working together. I also think of how the next generation of craftsmen will get trained to care for this cathedral and other monumental structures. The cutting, carving, and setting of the stonework will still need to rely on the classical model of apprenticeship and training: highly trained and experienced craftsmen working alongside apprentices and allowing the time to be taken and the mistakes to be made until you have that moment and finally “get” it.
I feel that one must start young in this trade, eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old. Apprenticeships are tough and demanding, and when I started, I took a thirty percent pay cut from laborer to apprentice stone mason. It was a sacrifice to accept lower wages for harder work with more responsibility. I think many people today would be unwilling or simply economically unable to do this. As I worked my way up, my wages rose, but I think it was a way to see if I really wanted to stick with it. Many who started in my apprentice group washed out after the first year. Roger Morigi, the cathedral’s master carver for many years, used to say, “You have to give to your craft all the time, every day, and say, ‘I’m going to do it,’ and have the drive to do it every day.” Roger was talking about carving, but that could be said about laying stone or really any other craft.
I came to the cathedral as a journeyman stone mason with some decent experience, but it turned out I had to learn cathedral-style stone setting and cutting from scratch. It was one of the few places that still did the traditional heavy load-bearing, non-veneer cut-stone setting and fine carving. As a mason on the west towers setting stone and building real Gothic arches and tracery, maneuvering huge blocks of stone with intricate carvings on them onto a quarter-inch mortar bed and precisely setting them to within 1/32 of an inch, I would worry about being off a fraction of an inch because of the excellence in craftsmanship all around me. I also needed to be able to cut and trim these stones on a straight line and work a curve or a simple molding in order to fit these pieces together.
During the tower construction of the 1980s, we had an incredibly experienced crew of craftsmen, from the bricklayers, carpenters, and, of course, Billy Cleland and Isidoro Flaim, two master stone masons who really showed me how to build a cathedral. Setting and cutting stone in a production situation was invaluable. The hundreds of stones I set and cut all added up to something that could never happen again, unless another cathedral were to be built.
Stone carvers Andy Uhl and Sean Callahan were part of the last group of apprentices brought to the cathedral in the mid-1980s and trained by master carver Vince Palumbo. They are among the last in a line of classically trained carvers like Vince, Roger Morigi, and the other earlier generation of stone carvers. We are fortunate to have their skills in cutting and carving as we work on the cathedral’s earthquake restoration, repairing massive damage from the earthquake that hit Washington, D.C., in 2011.
The cathedral is a unique place, and the skills we have honed here over the last twenty-five to thirty years are serving us well. Although we have a good general contractor and a good stone sub-contractor on this first phase of the earthquake repairs, we have found that they are limited when it comes to doing the intricate stone carving and dutchman repairs to some of the earthquake-damaged portions. Andy, Sean, and I are handling these repairs. I’ve noticed that several of these younger masons, two of whom are apprentices, seem eager to learn from us. I would love to share the knowledge and special tools we use, but even this job is deadline-driven and none of us has the time.
Andy, Sean, and I are not able to pass on our skills to the next generation, breaking a tradition at the cathedral since construction began in 1907. Budgets are tight, the restoration project is not yet fully funded, and we have a long list of non-masonry maintenance projects. The sub-contracted masons know how to tuck point, clean, cut, drill, patch, and do all of the other stone restoration procedures that a modern-day contractor does. The unions still do a good job with their apprenticeship programs to turn out qualified journeymen masons, but the “classical” parts of the trade—the fine cutting, shaping, carving, and setting—are harder to come by. There are a few exceptions, such as the excellent programs at the American College of the Building Arts in Charleston, South Carolina.
Can the market sustain these finer aspects of the trade? Is this classical style even worth teaching anymore? I’ve spent time in the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and they have a very robust stone apprenticeship system. Their masons and carvers have the fine traditional stone cutting, carving, and setting skills. I have had several masons and carvers from Europe ask me about coming to the cathedral to work on the repairs, but there is not enough work to sustain more than two carvers and a mason.
The knowledge and experience is still here because the generation before us passed on their skills to people like me, Andy, Sean, and many others. Billy Cleland, Vince Palumbo, and Roger Morigi learned their crafts from an unbroken chain of craftsmen that went back hundreds of years. We have that knowledge, but we are now in our fifties. What do we have left? Fifteen years or so?
The last half of the twentieth century saw such a huge change in technology, society, and the economy that it has put the traditional methods of building, craftsmanship, and training in jeopardy. This generation cannot let this slip or it may be too late.
The masonry trades and building trades in general need to attract young people who have a desire to learn a craft. I live in Fairfax County, Virginia, an affluent county with good services and schools. But in my area, there is no vocational training, and the high schools steer kids away from the trades; everyone is college bound. Our society has devalued the building trades, enough that the notion of a young person pursuing a trade raises eyebrows.
If true craftsmanship is to be an important part of our construction and preservation fields, then we need to train apprentices with an appreciation for those who came before them, instill pride, and take the time to teach the fine disciplines of the craft. It’s not easy and it takes a lot of time, which is difficult in our deadline- and bottom line-driven world. I feel time is running out, and we may be the last generation that can keep it going.
In the last few years, I have been hearing more talk of apprenticeships and other types of training and an increased awareness of the need for skilled trades. If architects, craftspeople, builders, and building owners agree to make this a priority, I know we could rise to the task of passing on our knowledge and experience to future generations.
Joe Alonso is the head stone mason at Washington National Cathedral and a member of the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers. The film Good Work: Masters of the Building Arts was produced by the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and American Focus, Inc. Check your local listings to see the film on PBS starting in October.