Stone masons work slowly, but proudly on National Cathedral

Washington National Cathedral gets a facelift... 02:34

WASHINGTON - The Bible says there is a time for everything: a time to tear down, and a time to build up.

For America's second biggest cathedral, it has been a time for building up what nature tore down.

Washington National Cathedral towers over the nation's capital like a mighty fortress. But when an earthquake shook Washington nearly three years ago it became clear that it is also delicate work of art. Tons of stone came crashing down and dozens of pinnacles and gargoyles shifted and twisted.

"It was like getting socked in the stomach," said stone carver Andy Uhl, who, along with Sean Callahan has worked on the cathedral for more than twenty years. "I thought it was done and now here I am repairing sometimes my own work."

A scaffold is propped against the National Cathedral in Washington as it goes through needed repairs after being damaged in an earthquake. CBS News

It took two and a half years to assess the damage and develop a plan to fix it. Only now are they beginning phase one -- which includes repairing the ceiling. Head stone mason Joe Alonso took us on a climbing tour, when we noticed damage 100 feet above the huge church's main floor.

"The ceiling rattled, I mean the entire cathedral shook, but the ceiling definitely rattled," said Alonso.

The results were all around.

"All along in here, that big joint, the cracking you see, that's definitely earthquake damage," said Alonso pointing out what happened.

But there was also a rare look at artwork that hasn't been see this close-up in decades, everything from Moses holding the ten commandments, to a man coveting his neighbor's wife.

"Incredibly detailed carving everywhere you look," Alonso said. "This is one of my favorites, the Egyptian stone carver. Look at him, carving the Sphinx, isn't that neat?"

A bird's eye view of the interior revealed a massive black net -- to protect people below from falling mortar.

Cathedral Dean Gary Hall hopes the ceiling work can be completed, and the net removed, within 9 months -- the first step in restoring a symbol of national unity.

"We are the place where the nation comes to celebrate, to mourn to pray," said Hall.

The work is painstakingly slow. So too is raising the $26 million in private donations it will cost. Which means it could be another decade before all the pieces of this national treasure are back where they belong.

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    Chip Reid

    Chip Reid is CBS News' national correspondent.