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Peter Cleland, National Cathedral mason

Emma Brown


In writng obituaries, we don't often have the chance to go out and do on-site reporting, but the Sunday Local Life feature about Peter Cleland, I managed to get out of the office. I met Mr. Cleland's son and grandson, and I took a trip to Washington National Cathedral to see his greatest achievement: the cathedral's west front.

Mr. Cleland was a master stonemason, and he was in charge of building the cathedral during its last 18 years of construction. The cathedral is unlike any other building in D.C. And was built in the same manner as the great cathedrals of Europe -- one stone at a time, put in place by human hands.

Mr. Cleland's successor at the cathedral, Joe Alonso, took me on a special behind-the-scenes tour, showing me the stone vaulting in the cathedral from above and below. We walked along the roof of the cathedral, gazing out at Wasington from the city's highest point. Inside, we stood on a narrow balustrade at the base of the west rose window, some 40 feet above the cathedral floor, to look at the intricate stonework that Mr. Cleland and his crew put in place to accommodate the elaborate window. There are octagonal stones, fluted stones, stones carved into circles, all fixed in place by stonemasons with nothing more than strength, mortar and ingenuity.

Mr. Cleland was a behind-the-scenes figure at many of Washington's greatest landmarks: the Jefferson Memorial, the White House, the National Gallery of Art, the Madison Builiding of the Library of Congress.

He was a modest man who nonethless was clearly proud of what he accomplished. He was also proud that two of his grandsons followed him into the stonemason's trade. His grandson Ray Cleland worked at the White House during a long restoration in the 1990s.

Stonemasons develop exceptional upper-body strength, and Ray Cleland, whose forearms are six inches thick, was once a semi-professional arm wrestler. In his 20s, he friskily challenged his grandfather to an arm-wrestling match. Mr. Cleland, then in his mid-60s, flattened his grandson's arm in seconds.

By Emma Brown  |  May 2, 2010; 10:42 AM ET
Categories:  Local Lives , Matt Schudel  | Tags: peter billy cleland died, peter billy cleland obituary, peter billy cleland stonemason national cathedral  
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