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How Do You Scrub the Crystal Cathedral? Very, Very Carefully

Times Staff Writer

When the windows need washing at the Crystal Cathedral, church employee David Shiffer makes it a point not to discuss it with his mother.

On Monday, David and two other daring church workers will climb into a specially made basket and be lifted up alongside the 12-story structure for the annual cleansing of about 11,000 windows at the world famous church in Garden Grove.

“She hates to think of me so high up,” Shiffer, 39, said of his mother. “She thinks for some reason that something will go wrong even though I’ve been doing this for the last three years.”

Since the Crystal Cathedral opened its glass doors in 1980 and became an instant Orange County landmark, drawing both tourists and regular worshipers to weekly services and spectacular Christmas and Easter pageants, the tedious job of window washing has attracted much public attention. Shiffer says he feels like a celebrity for the five days he hovers above ground with window cleaner in hand.

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“People just stand around a lot of the time, watching us do what we do,” Shiffer said. “I guess it is pretty interesting to see a group of men all washing windows.”

This year’s washing begins three weeks behind schedule because of some adjacent construction work that was kicking up dust, according to officials. The window washing is usually completed two weeks before the fall premiere of the Rev. Robert Schuller’s Sunday morning telecast, “The Hour of Power,” which reaches 4 million viewers worldwide.

The Sept. 17 television taping had to proceed without spotless windows, although many of the lower panels were cleaned. But Schuller said he didn’t mind.

“We are not that superficial about what’s on the outside,” Schuller after a recent Sunday morning sermon. “Of course, it would have been nice to have the windows cleaned before the filming but that wasn’t possible. It’s what’s on the inside that counts.”

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The window cleaning is not only for appearance’s sake but also for the general upkeep of the glass, officials say.

“We do wash the windows once a year to prevent the deterioration of the glass due to air pollution and chemical buildup,” said Ruth Johnson, director of communications.

The church spends an estimated $30,000--taken from a special endowment fund earmarked for the maintenance--each year to rent a 110-ton crane to lift the window washers in a basket attached to a 180-foot boom.

Each year the church hires an Orange-based business, Mr. Crane, to hoist several maintenance workers in the basket, specially designed to conform to the demands of the cathedral’s distinctive architecture.

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The 2,000-pound basket has special brushes for reaching side windows, water pumps, a dozen hoses and 20 tanks holding a solution of iodized water and ammonia. Respirators are also aboard if workers want to avoid the powerful smell of ammonia.

The workers begin by washing the roof peaks, which is considered the most difficult and dangerous part of the cleaning chore.

“The roof can be tricky because the surface is slanted and landing the basket so just the right amount of weight is on the glass is imperative. One wrong move and the basket keeps sliding down.”

And while no workers have ever been injured on the job, there is always a threat of swift winds.

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“I wasn’t working the detail at the time,” Shiffer explained, “but there is a story that says a few windows were broken when the basket took a wrong turn, so we have to be very careful.”

Workers spend about two days cleaning the roof, and they usually have to replace four or five windows that break or become cracked by wind.

CLEANSING THE CATHEDRAL Orange County’s most famous glass church--seen weekly by a national television audience--was built in 1980. As they do every year, church maintenance workers will spend five days--starting Monday--scouring the sleek exterior of the 12-story structure. Glass: 11,000 panes, 40 different configurations. Cost: $30,000. Crew: Three maintenance workers, two crane operators. Equipment: A 110-ton crane with a 180-foot boom lifts workers in a 2,000-pound basket, with special brushes for reaching side windows, water pumps, a dozen hoses and 20 tanks holding a solution of iodized water and ammonia. Respirators are aboard to protect workers against ammonia fumes. Tips: “The roof can be tricky,” said church employee David Shiffer, “because the surface is slanted and landing the basket so just the right amount of weight is on the glass is imperative. One wrong move and the basket keeps sliding down.”


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