National Cathedral: A Masterpiece Two Centuries in the Making

Wikipedia

Washington National Cathedral at dusk. Photo via Wikipedia.

Lately, I have been unable to get away from George Washington. First, I researched DC’s brewing history, then DC’s distilling history—he played a key role in both. This week, I decided to write about Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, better known as Washington National Cathedral. I thought I was out of the George Washington woods. As it turns out, this story begins with GW too…

The idea of a national cathedral was proposed during the first US presidency. George Washington commissioned architect and civil engineer Pierre L’Enfant to design the stunning capital city. And it was L’Enfant who envisioned “a great church for national purposes.”

That was more than two hundred years ago. One hundred years later, community leaders finally collected the funds and support necessary to commence construction. The first stone of the cathedral was sourced from a field near Bethlehem (Israel, not Pennsylvania) and was set inside a large piece of American granite; it was laid in the presence of President Theodore Roosevelt and 10,000 onlookers on September 29, 1907.

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An early photo of the construction of the National Cathedral. Photo courtesy of NationalCathedral.org.

It took nearly another 100 years to complete the Cathedral, and the last stone was laid in the presence of President George H. W. Bush in 1990. The National Cathedral is still the longest lasting construction project in DC history, with 83 total years of construction. It cost $65 million, which, considering its scale, feels like a good deal to me.

Washington National Cathedral is the cathedral of the Episcopal Church—though Congress also made it the official non-denominational National House of Prayer, in keeping with L’Enfant’s original vision. Over the years it has been the site for many events: presidents’ funerals, the celebration of the end of both World Wars, prayer services for September 11th victims, organ recitals, jazz concerts, daily services and holiday services, among many others.

That said, it is a site open to everyone—atheists and agnostics, too! Many visit to pray or get centered, but many others visit just to explore the architecture and grounds.

This is a fascinating site for many, many reasons. Architecturally, there is no equal this side of New York City (where you’ll find the largest US cathedral, Cathedral of Saint John the Divine). The National Cathedral was built in the neo-gothic tradition with a rectangular mass, an eight-bay nave and five-bay chancel. The rectangular mass is intersected by a six-bay transept.

Stained glass at The NC. Courtesy of allairports.net

Stained glass at The National Cathedral. Photo courtesy of AllAirports.net.

The Cathedral is a solid masonry structure, meaning blocks of solid stone (limestone) were laid atop each other with mortar between them. The largest stone weighs a whopping 5.5 tons. Meanwhile, solid-stone flying buttresses brace the walls and the roof is held in place with steel beams—so, if you took off the roof, the rest of the building would remain standing.

Metal works, mosaics, more than 200 stained glass windows, leaded glass, wood carvings and stone sculptures are among the decorative pieces that make the Cathedral unique. But, for me, the most fascinating pieces are the gargoyles and grotesques, which have architectural, spiritual and artistic purpose.

The Pacifist and his gas mask (sculpted by Walter S. Arnold, via DC Memorials

The Pacifist and his gas mask, sculpted by Walter S. Arnold. Photo courtesy of DCMemorials.com.

The origination of these sculptures is uncertain. During the 13th century gargoyles and grotesques were used to divert rainwater from church walls. Later, they became visual reminders of virtue and evil for illiterate populations. And, eventually, they were seen as apotropaic figures that diverted evil from sacred spaces. At The National Cathedral, there are many traditional gargoyles and grotesques (gothic monsters with grimacing faces). But there are also many modern interpretations of the creatures: culturally relevant versions of good and evil. Among them are The Crooked Politician, a praying mantis, a fly holding a can of Raid, The Pacifist wearing a gas mask, and Darth Vader, designed by a 13-year old as part of a nationwide children’s sculpture competition in the 1980s.

There is no shortage of interesting detail, historic and architectural, about the National Cathedral and too many to list in this blog. But here are just a select few to gnaw on:

  • It’s the sixth largest cathedral in the world.
  • Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his final Sunday sermon here.
  • The top of the Gloria in Excelsis Tower is the highest point in the city.
  • One of the last old growth forests in the city, Olmsted Woods, is located on the Cathedral grounds.
  • The structure’s Space Window (located on the south aisle) contains a piece of lunar rock.
  • There are a total of 112 gargoyles, 288 angels and 231 stained glass windows.
  • The entire building weighs 150,000 tons and the central tower is more than 300 feet high.
  • Thousands of masons and sculptures, and five architects worked to complete the project.
Bishop’s Garden. Photo by Flickr user Robert Bolton.

Bishop’s Garden. Photo by Flickr user Robert Bolton.

Last but not least, The National Cathedral has a 59-acre Cathedral Close (or grounds) and some of the most beautiful gardens in town. In my experience, this is a great place to hide away from the world and enjoy some peace and quiet, particularly mid-week. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr., designed the grounds in the early 1900s after the walled grounds of medieval cathedrals. There, you’ll find a rose garden, herb gardens, stone paths, perennial blooms, a twelfth century Norman arch, stone walls and a Shadow House. This little oasis is open from dawn until dusk.

You can learn more about Washington National Cathedral here—and if you are interested in touring the site, click here for more information.

 

 

 

 

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