I have always been drawn to churches. Whether it was the small, white chapel that my great grandparents attended in Hendersonville, NC, the Bruton Parish Church in Williamsburg that one of my grandfather’s was the architect for, or Westminister Abbey one Easter morning, I was not going to miss an opportunity to walk in, sit and listen.
No, I have never visited our National Cathedral, but perhaps one day.
Standing at one of the city’s highest points, this soaring Gothic cathedral extends almost the length of two football fields and pierces the city’s skyline.
Designed and constructed in the 14th-century English Gothic style, the edifice was also built without the use of steel support in a centuries-old manner—using artists, sculptors, and stone masons. Radiant heating in the stone floor is one of its few concessions to modernity.
The church’s grandeur is evidenced in its stunning features: soaring vaulting, sparkling stained glass windows, and intricate carvings. The Space Window contains a piece of lunar rock presented to the cathedral by the astronauts of Apollo XI. Fanciful gargoyles and dramatic sculpture adorn the exterior. The inscription “Is not God in the height of Heaven?” (Job 22:12) appears at the window’s base.
Although a Christian church, the Cathedral welcomes persons of all faiths and is frequently the site of interfaith and ecumenical services. Services of celebration for the swearing in of a president, thanksgiving for the release of hostages, and mourning for the death of a leader are examples of the Cathedral’s national purpose.
The Bishop’s Garden, on the Cathedral grounds, is a medieval-styled walled garden with ancient boxwood’s, herbs, and a rose garden. The gardens were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and occupy two thirds of the Washington National Cathedral site.
Stonemasons and builders erected the cathedral beginning in 1907, completing it 83 years later in 1990. Carved from Indiana limestone, the structure boasts a 30-story-tall central tower, an interior nine-bay nave and 215 stained glass windows, including one embedded with a moon rock. Inside, you’ll find a crypt level where Helen Keller is buried. On the nave level, you’ll discover an intricately carved wooden choir area and numerous serene chapels.
The west rose window was dedicated in 1977 in the presence of both the 39th President, Jimmy Carter and Queen Elizabeth II.
President Woodrow Wilson and his wife, Edith, are both buried here in the Cathedral. He is the only president buried in the District of Columbia. You’ll see in the bay the American flag and the flag of Princeton University, of which he was president also. The cross on top of his tomb is the Crusader’s Cross, to represent his crusade for peace after WWI.
As John Muir said, “One may as well dam for water tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has eve been consecrated by the heart of man.”
On the exterior, you can search out the 112 gargoyles (decorative rain spouts) and grotesques (carved stone creatures) with the help of a map (available at the entrance) or via guided tours conducted during summer months.
The National Cathedral, completed in 1990, is the culmination of a two-century-long plan for a majestic Gothic style cathedral. This richly decorated cathedral is located on a landscaped 57 acre plot of land on Mount Saint Albans in Northwest Washington, 400 feet above sea level. The cathedral consists of a long narrow rectangular mass, the eight bay nave and the five bay chancel, intersected by a six bay transept. Above the crossing, rising just over 300 feet above grade, is the Gloria in Excelsis Tower.
The building abounds in architectural sculpture, wood carving, leaded glass, mosaics, artistic metal work, and many other works of art, including over 200 stained glass windows. Most of the decorative elements have Christian symbolism or are memorials to famous persons or events.
On January 4, 1792, descriptions from President Washington’s disclosed plan for the “City of Washington, in the district of Columbia” were published in The Gazette of the United States, Philadelphia. Lot “D” was set aside and designated for “A church intended for national purposes, …, assigned to the special use of no particular sect or denomination, but equally open to all.” The National Portrait Gallery now occupies that site. A century later in 1891, a meeting was held to revive plans to build the church intended for national purposes. It was to be a Christian cathedral.
The building of the cathedral finally started in 1907 with a ceremonial address by President Theodore Roosevelt when he laid the cornerstone. When construction of the cathedral resumed after a brief hiatus for World War I. Although construction slowed during periods of economic hardship and stopped altogether during 1977–80, the building was completed in 1990.
American architect Philip Hubert Frohman took over the design of the cathedral and is known as the principal architect. The Cathedral has been the location of many significant events, including the funeral services of Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan. Its pulpit was the last one from which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke prior to his assassination. The Cathedral is the burial place of many notable people, including Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller, Admiral George Dewey, Bishop Satterlee and the architects Henry Vaughan and Philip Frohman.
And this church continues to give back to our people. Last week, the National Cathedral donated 5,000 respirator masks to hospitals after finding them in the cathedral’s crypt level. they were brought more than a decade ago during the bird flu epidemic.
The message was clear from the outset that the Cathedral and the communities formed around it would stand for peace, and over time that Gospel message has rung out forcefully from the Canterbury Pulpit. Even on the days when that pulpit is silent, the Cathedral’s message of peace and spiritual renewal of all who have served pervades almost every space.