Washington National Cathedral: Embracing my inner tourist in Northwest D.C.

Places like Washington, D.C.—rich in history and iconic landmarks—provide plenty of opportunities for touristy sightseeing. Not surprisingly, many residents, however, can go years without visiting the National Mall or White House, despite living a few miles away. It makes sense; we all get into our routines of work, exercise, grocery shopping, dog walks—somehow, an afternoon stroll down Embassy Row doesn’t quite fit into the patterns of everyday life.

Before getting too stuck in a rut, I’ve been seeking out some of the District’s more well-know spots: I had coffee and a bagel on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, took a picture in front of the White House, and visited the Newseum. A few days ago, I decided to take advantage of a landmark in my own neighborhood, the National Cathedral.

The Washington National Cathedral, located at the corner of Wisconsin and Massachusetts avenues, offers a wide variety of tour options.

The Washington National Cathedral, located at the corner of Wisconsin and Massachusetts avenues, offers a wide variety of tour options.

The behemoth structure on the corner of Wisconsin and Massachusetts avenues is used for national events, like the memorial services for former Presidents Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford or astronaut Neil Armstrong. And I had heard there was a piece of moon rock in one of the many stained-glass windows. But that pretty much exhausted anything I knew about the cathedral. So I opted for the “Highlights Tour,” a fairly quick spin around the first and second floors of the church, led by a volunteer docent.

Ken Mason, our chatty and knowledgeable tour guide, described the architecture and history of the cathedral to our five-person group, comprised of two Texans, one Marylander and a fellow Californian. Ken explained that the Protestant-Episcopalian church, which took exactly 83 years to construct, features modern Gothic architecture and 231 stained-glass windows. It is made entirely of stone and cement, with no steel or I-beams offering supplemental support. In this way, its construction is similar to the iconic cathedrals in Europe, also made of stone and cement in the Gothic style.

As a side note, back in the mid 1100s, the decision to shift into the Gothic style was quite pragmatic. Romanesque architecture, with its rounded arches, requires thicker walls and thus doesn’t allow for any windows. When Europeans started building the more modern cathedrals of the 12th century, they wanted to bring in more outside light. So they made the arches more pointed at the top, which alleviated some of the weight on the walls and allowed for stained-glass windows.

The multicolored, 26-foot-wide window at the front of the cathedral tells the creation story from the beginning of the Bible. Ken said it was designed by Rowan LeCompte, an artist who started working with the cathedral staff at just 16 years old. In total, LeCompte completed 45 other windows for the church.

The 26-foot-wide window at the front of the cathedral, titled "Creation," tells the story from the beginning of the book of Genesis. The faintly visible black netting, installed by cathedral staffers after a 5.8-magnitude earthquake hit the region in August 2011, was put in place to catch any stone pieces or debris knocked loose during the tremor.

The 26-foot-wide window at the front of the cathedral, titled “Creation,” tells the story from the beginning of the book of Genesis. The faintly visible black netting, installed by cathedral staffers after a 5.8-magnitude earthquake hit the region in August 2011, was put in place to catch any stone pieces or debris knocked loose during the tremor.

The “Space Window” I had heard about is on the south side of the building, about halfway into the main section of the cathedral. Dedicated in 1974, on the fifth anniversary of the first moon landing, it seeks to illustrate the intersection of science and faith. Ken explained that one of the astronauts from Apollo 11, Michael Collins, attended St. Albans, the boys’ school on the same grounds as the cathedral. Collins donated that piece of lunar rock from his space travels.

The "Space Window," on the south side of the cathedral.

The “Space Window,” on the south side of the cathedral.

As we walked down the middle aisle toward the back, Ken told us that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his final Sunday sermon at the cathedral’s main pulpit. And that Woodrow Wilson, whose tomb is in the cathedral, is the only U.S. president buried in the District. (Wilson’s tomb sits just to the left of the “Space Window.”)

Standing to the right of the pulpit, Ken pointed out another 26-foot-wide window, this one on the north side of the building. Titled “The Last Judgment,” it was installed in 1932, making it the oldest window in the cathedral. It depicts people sent upward into heaven and downward into hell, with the figure of Jesus—which, Ken told us, is life-sized—in the middle of the window, deciding where each person will go.

The section behind the pulpit area, called the sanctuary, is comprised of the high altar and the choir. The choir area features ornate oak carvings and bench seats, including two places reserved for the chaplains of the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. The organ is tucked into this section, and after the tour, we heard one of the organists rehearsing: And the high altar, where the bishop sits and where the bread and wine of communion is set out, is made of Indiana limestone. As in the rest of the cathedral, marble flooring connects these two sections.

The choir section of the sanctuary.

The choir section of the sanctuary. The organist sits on the left of the aisle, and the two chaplain seats are located in the right section.

Ken led us to the lower level of the building, called the crypt. The Bethlehem Chapel was the first part of the cathedral to be completed, so the first services were held there. St. Joseph’s Chapel is next door, and its main piece of art is a mural depicting Jesus’ disciples as they take him from the crucifixion site to the stone tomb. The ashes of Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, are in St. Joseph’s Chapel, across from the mural.

Although this technically was the end of the tour, I still needed to do a bit more exploring. Ken had mentioned that some of the 500 nativity scenes that have been donated to the cathedral were on display in a few nooks and crannies throughout the lower level. Because of the volume of donations, cathedral staffers can only put out about one-third of their overall collection each year.

Made entirely out of driftwood the artist found along the Gulf Coast, this nativity scene was donated by Alabama to the cathedral in 2006.

Made entirely out of driftwood the artist found along the Gulf Coast, this nativity scene was donated by Alabama to the cathedral in 2006.

Most of the nativity scenes reflected their origins, with the materials sourced from their home region and the construction revealing their cultural background. The one from Lesotho, for example, was handmade out of Merino wool by 15 women in the northern city of Maputsoe. Another one was crafted from carved olive wood and made in Bethlehem, the site of Jesus’ birth. And the one from Pennsylvania featured handcrafted blue and gray pottery, reflective of southeastern Pennsylvania’s stoneware tradition.

This nativity scene was made in Bethlehem, from olive wood.

This nativity scene was made in Bethlehem, carved from olive wood.

As I made my way back to the main entrance, I saw a sign that mentioned a seventh-floor observation gallery that’s open to the public. It happened to be at the tail end of the afternoon sunset, so my panoramic views of the city were cloaked in soft pinks and oranges. And since the cathedral itself was build at the District’s highest point, my view from the gallery stretched toward the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and Maryland’s Catoctin Mountain Park (the site of Camp David, FYI).

The westward view from the observation gallery, on the seventh floor of the cathedral.

The westward view from the observation gallery, on the seventh floor of the cathedral.

Ken, who has been leading tours for seven years, provided a great introduction to the cathedral. But audio tours also are an option, as are self-guided ones, with info packets offered in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Russian, German and Italian. No matter what tour you decide to go with, Ken did suggest that locals plan their visits outside of the high-traffic months of March through June.

If doing a full-on tour isn’t quite your thing but you still want to check out the building and grounds, think about attending an upcoming concert or lecture. Several festive events are slated for the next few weeks to celebrate Christmas. The cathedral choir and orchestra will perform Handel’s iconic “Messiah” at 4 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 9 ($25; student discounts available). The “Joy of Christmas” concert is on Dec. 15 and 16 ($31), and the “Christmas Family Pageant” is at 2 p.m., Saturday, Dec. 22. At 6 p.m. on Dec. 23 and 24, the cathedral is hosting “Carols by Candlelight.”

Looking ahead to 2013, on Feb. 6, Yale’s Willis Jenkins will come to the cathedral to speak about sustainability and ethics in “God, Poverty and the Future of Love.” On Feb. 19, Duke’s Norman Wirzba will talk about how people can become more responsible stewards of creation in “Soil and Human Well-Being.” And on March 24, on Palm Sunday, the choir and guest soloists will perform Bach’s “St. John Passion.”

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9 thoughts on “Washington National Cathedral: Embracing my inner tourist in Northwest D.C.

  1. I’m 5 months new to DC and I live about a 20 minute walk from the National Cathedral and have been wanting to check it out. This piece inspired me to stop procrastinating and make it happen! Looking forward to the architecture and various nativity scenes.

    • Welcome to the neighborhood, fellow newbie! If you want to take advantage of Ken’s tour guide wisdom, head to the cathedral on Tuesdays — that’s his one day per week that he volunteers. But you can do self-guided or audio tours pretty much anytime!

  2. My father took my to DC back in my early teens. I still remember it was one of the greatest family vacations of my childhood; so much of our history is in that 50mile radius!

    • So true. And if you happen to be in the D.C. area during the holidays, you should go to the cathedral on Dec. 28, when the military and clergy present a wreath for President Wilson’s tomb. That was Wilson’s birthday, and they do the ceremony every year.

  3. Pingback: LiveSmart DC

  4. What a nice piece you’ve written. If I may, I’d like to correct some information in your story. The high altar, aka The Jerusalem Altar, is made from limestone quarried at Solomon’s Quarry in Jerusalem. The seat where the bishop sits, aka The Glastonbury Cathedra, is stone from the ruins of Glastonbury Abbey in England. Glastonbury is the legendary birthplace of Christianity in Britain. Ken’s a great docent, it just sounds like some of the data got condensed.

    If you’d like to follow things at the Cathedral from an individual’s perspective, I offer Andy’s Big Church Blog, here on WordPress, and have a Facebook Page called Andy Bittner – Cathedral Docent.

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