An Interview with Jens Langlotz, Bryn Athyn's Master Stone Carver

Glencairn Museum News | Number 6, 2016

Jens Langlotz installs a new limestone finial onto an original base above the south entry to Bryn Athyn Cathedral.

We met with Jens Langlotz, Master Stone Carver at Bryn Athyn Cathedral, in his workshop to discuss the art and craft of stone carving. Then we climbed the scaffold above the Cathedral’s south entry to watch Jens and his assistant, Grayson Zuber, in action as they replaced several badly worn limestone finials with exact copies (see photos and captions).


Figure 1: The entry to the south nave of Bryn Athyn Cathedral. The stone work of the upper wall has been completely restored and cleaned. The lower wall, including the stone work for the south entry, is in the process of being restored this year.


How did you first become interested in stone carving?

As a young man I wanted to be in a hands-on job environment. My first thought was stone, because of the durability of the work and my love for architecture. Fortunately, my search was successful and a company took me as an apprentice.

Where did you learn the trade of stone carving, and how did you come to work at Bryn Athyn Cathedral?

I learned the trade at a stone restoration company in Germany (Hans Kupke), where I was taught stone carving. After meeting a relative of Albert Walter (stone restoration supervisor at Bryn Athyn Cathedral from 1964 to 1993) at school in Freiburg, I became aware of the Bryn Athyn Cathedral by looking at a picture of it on a postcard. After my apprenticeship was over, I visited the Cathedral to get a first impression in 1987.


Figure 2: In this photo, three out of four new limestone finials have been set on original bases. Left: Jens Langlotz installs a finial and cleans excess mortar from the base. Right: Grayson Zuber does grouting and cleanup.


What is the relationship between the stonework at Glencairn and the stonework at Bryn Athyn Cathedral?

Even though Bryn Athyn Cathedral is its own blend of Romanesque and Gothic styles, there are many similarities in features of the stonework between Glencairn and the Cathedral. The stone maintenance crew, under Albert Walter’s supervision, worked on both buildings. Once the craftsmen had become familiar with the style and features, they were well suited for repair work and ongoing maintenance. In order to have the skills to work on both buildings, stone carvers had to be able to carve both soft limestone and hard igneous stone—such as granite—at the Cathedral.


Figure 3: The level of decay on this limestone finial has reached the point that details are beginning to disappear. At this point it becomes necessary to replace the entire finial with a modern exact copy in Indiana limestone, which is stronger than the original limestone used for Bryn Athyn Cathedral.


What is it that makes the stonework at Bryn Athyn Cathedral unique?

Unlike many churches that were built after the medieval period in the Gothic and Romanesque styles, Bryn Athyn Cathedral was not just a traditional copy. As Raymond Pitcairn, who supervised the project, became more involved with the architecture and design features of the Cathedral, a process began using scale models and life-size plaster mockups to maintain different visual relationships to the building than is offered by two-dimensional blueprints. This change gave more control over to the relationship between Raymond and the artisans, rather than letting architects make all the decisions. To this day Glencairn Museum stores an array of plaster models created during the construction of the Cathedral and Glencairn.

Therefore artisans in Bryn Athyn were led to create an amazing amount of details and embellishments found nowhere else in this world. As a newcomer or visitor you are continually led from one noteworthy design to the next. Many decor elements are expected to come from one mold (straight walls, 90-degree angles), but the more attention you spend on comparing the elements the more surprised you will be to find the differences, even down to the very last stone.


Figure 4: Existing stone on the south wall is showing cracks in the molding, and will need re-carving in the next year or two.


Why do some of the original stone carvings at Bryn Athyn Cathedral need to be replaced?

The most visible and ornate stones are the limestone carvings finishing the buttresses and spires at the corners of the roofs. The limestone used was very light in color—almost white—to contrast with the granite. But over time the original limestone did not stand up to the environmental stresses in our local climate: acid rain, frost, algae growth, etc. These wear away the substance of this stone to the point of loss of recognizability. Right before that happens, the stones need to be taken down to be re-carved.


Figure 5: In the Bryn Athyn Cathedral workshops, a new limestone finial (left) is in the process of being carved. This is an exact copy of the original, degraded finial (right).


What kind of stone was used at Glencairn and Bryn Athyn Cathedral? Where do you get the stone to restore deteriorated carvings at the Cathedral?

Glencairn’s exterior is exclusively granite, with some marble built inside. The Cathedral’s exterior is a combination of granite and limestone, and the interior veneer of the nave is sandstone. The new limestone we use comes from Indiana, and is a lot stronger than the original limestone.


Figure 6: A variety of chisels and rasps are used with a wooden mallet for detail carving.


In the future, how will architectural historians be able to tell the difference between the original carvings on the Cathedral and the new replacement carvings?

The new limestone is slightly less bright in color, and shows a stronger tone of beige. This difference fades from year to year as the stone takes on its natural weathered look, and slowly becomes covered with algae. Unless someone does a complete visual inventory of the stones on the original fabric, the next generation will be able to tell the difference between new versus old only by analyzing the state of decay.


Figure 7: Three completed limestone finials ready for installation above the south entry of Bryn Athyn Cathedral. These will replace the original, badly degraded finials.


When is it appropriate to replace old stone instead of just cleaning it?

At the point when hairline fractures become visible, it takes only a few more years until the frost will peel away the recognizable form of a carving. Cleaning the stone will make those fractures visible, and taking off the algae will prolong the life of the limestone. Certain stones are considered weight bearing—that is, located in buttresses that slowly get compressed—and are not strong enough to take the pressure. They, too, need to be exchanged.


Figure 8: Grayson Zuber applies restoration mortar to secure one of the new limestone finials.


What effect did the earthquake of 2010, which caused substantial damage to Washington National Cathedral, have on Bryn Athyn Cathedral?

Fortunately only very little was noticed here after the 2010 earthquake. Reasons for this include our distance from the epicenter, the overall size of our cathedral compared to the Washington National Cathedral, and the foresight of Albert Walter in cross pinning the tower finials in 1991.


Figure 9: Very steady hands are needed to perform the final touches.


Was there ever a time when Bryn Athyn Cathedral was relatively maintenance free with regard to its stonework?

The first forty to fifty years could be labeled maintenance free, up to the end of the 1960s. In the 1970s maintenance crews had to start exchanging mortar joints in order to keep water from getting into the building. In the 1980s it was discovered that the tower had settlement issues, and one band of limestone was removed and replaced with granite. From that point on there was constant maintenance needed.


Figure 10: Metal pins at the base of the finials will prevent them from falling off during earthquakes or high winds.


Bryn Athyn Cathedral will celebrate the centennial of its dedication in 2019. As the building ages, what special challenges are faced with the maintenance and restoration of the stonework?

Bryn Athyn Cathedral is a large building with no roof overhangs to protect the walls. Water downspouts go through the tops of the walls, in a climate zone with lots of freeze and thaw. It is an absolute certainty that the building will continue to need maintenance and restoration in the future. The challenge is to preserve a community of craftsmen and artisans who understand the needs of the building, with its refinements and special features in stone, metal, glass and wood. The craftsmen were carefully selected during the construction of the Cathedral, and some even stayed in the community. The last craftsman hired directly by Raymond Pitcairn was Albert Walter, who was able to work with stone, metal and wood. Ongoing education and programs are needed in order to bring back craftsmen and artisans who understand the uniqueness of the Cathedral and Glencairn.


Figure 11: Jens Langlotz prepares one of the original bases with mortar to receive one of the new, exact copies he has carved.


What will your students in Bryn Athyn College’s summer workshop about cathedral stone carving be learning and doing? Is any previous experience in stone carving necessary?

No previous experience is needed to participate in the stone carving workshop, since stone carving is based on a simple step-by-step process. The summer workshops in Bryn Athyn will combine getting to know the different buildings as well as learning hands-on techniques, including surface finishes, profiles, lettering in stone, and ornate carving.


Figure 12: After preparing the base with restoration mortar, Jens Langlotz carefully positions the new limestone finial. The installation of a finial takes just a few minutes, but the carving of a replacement finial takes several weeks.


More information about the Workshops in Bryn Athyn (summer 2016) is here.

A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.