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Washington National Cathedral

Washington National Cathedral
Washington National Cathedral is officially dedicated as the "Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington".
Location Wisconsin Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C.

38°55′50.05″N 77°4′15.13″W / 38.9305694°N 77.0708694°W / 38.9305694; -77.0708694Coordinates: 38°55′50.05″N 77°4′15.13″W / 38.9305694°N 77.0708694°W / 38.9305694; -77.0708694{{#coordinates:38|55|50.05|N|77|4|15.13|W|region:US_type:landmark |primary |name=

Built 1907–1990
Architect George Frederick Bodley, Philip Hubert Frohman
Architectural style Neo-Gothic
Governing body Episcopal Church in the U.S.A.
NRHP Reference # 74002170
Added to NRHP May 3, 1974
File:Rose Window Washington National Cathedral.jpg
The west rose window was dedicated in 1977 in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (and titular Head of the Church of England) and 39th President James Earl (Jimmy) Carter.

The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, operated under the more familiar name of Washington National Cathedral, is a cathedral of the Episcopal Church located in Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States.[1][2] Of Neo-Gothic design closely modeled on English Gothic style of the late fourteenth century, it is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world, the second-largest in the United States,[3] and the highest as well as the fourth-tallest structure in Washington, D.C. The cathedral is the seat of both the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, and the Bishop of the Diocese of Washington, Mariann Edgar Budde. In 2009, nearly 400,000 visitors toured the structure. Average attendance at Sunday services in 2009 was 1,667, the highest of all domestic parishes in the Episcopal Church that year.[4]

The Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation, under the first seven Bishops of Washington, erected the cathedral under a charter passed by the United States Congress on January 6, 1893.[5] Construction began on September 29, 1907, when the foundation stone was laid in the presence of President Theodore Roosevelt and a crowd of more than 20,000, and ended 83 years later when the "final finial" was placed in the presence of President George H. W. Bush in 1990. Decorative work, such as carvings and statuary, is ongoing as of 2011. The Foundation is the legal entity of which all institutions on the Cathedral Close are a part; its corporate staff provides services for the institutions to help enable their missions, conducts work of the Foundation itself that is not done by the other entities, and serves as staff for the Board of Trustees. In 2011, the Cathedral was named the recipient of a $700,000 matching grant limited to preservation work as part of the Save America's Treasures program, a public-private partnership operated by the nonprofit National Trust for Historic Preservation using federal funds that must be matched by private dollars.[6]

The Cathedral stands at Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues in the northwest quadrant of Washington. It is an associate member of the recently organized inter-denominational Washington Theological Consortium.[7] It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In 2007, it was ranked third on the List of America's Favorite Architecture by the American Institute of Architects.[8]



In 1792, Pierre L'Enfant's "Plan of the Federal City" set aside land for a "great church for national purposes". The National Portrait Gallery now occupies that site. In 1891, a meeting was held to renew plans for a national cathedral. On January 6, 1893, the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia was granted a charter from Congress to establish the cathedral. The 52nd United States Congress declared in the act to incorporate the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia that the "said corporation is hereby empowered to establish and maintain within the District of Columbia a cathedral and institutions of learning for the promotion of religion and education and charity."[9] The commanding site on Mount Saint Alban was chosen. Henry Yates Satterlee, first Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Washington, chose George Frederick Bodley, Britain's leading Anglican church architect, as the head architect. Henry Vaughan was selected supervising architect.

Construction started September 29, 1907, with a ceremonial address by President Theodore Roosevelt and the laying of the cornerstone. In 1912, Bethlehem Chapel opened for services in the unfinished cathedral, which have continued daily ever since. When construction of the cathedral resumed after a brief hiatus for World War I, both Bodley and Vaughan had died. Gen. John J. Pershing led fundraising efforts for the church after World War I. American architect Philip Hubert Frohman took over the design of the cathedral and was thenceforth designated the principal architect. Funding for the National Cathedral has come entirely from private sources. Maintenance and upkeep continue to rely entirely upon private support.

National House of Prayer

Congress of the United States has designated the "Washington National Cathedral" as the "National House of Prayer".[10] During World War II, monthly services were held there "on behalf of a united people in a time of emergency". Before and since, the structure has hosted other major events, both religious and secular, that have drawn the attention of the American people, as well as tourists from around the world.

Major events

Major services

The 2004 state funeral of 40th President, Ronald Reagan

State funerals for three American Presidents have been held at the cathedral:[11]

Memorial services were also held for presidents (29th) Warren G. Harding, (27th) William Howard Taft, (30th) Calvin Coolidge, (33rd) Harry S Truman, and (37th) Richard M. Nixon.[11]

Presidential prayer services were held the day after the inaugurations of 32nd President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in January 1937, 40th - Ronald Reagan in 1985, 41st - George H.W. Bush in 1989, 43rd - George W. Bush in 2001 and 2005, and 44th - Barack Obama in 2009 and 2013.[13]

Other events include:

It was from Washington National Cathedral's "Canterbury Pulpit" that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered the final Sunday sermon of his life on March 31, 1968, just a few days before his assassination in April 1968.[14] A memorial service for King was held at the cathedral later the same week.

2011 earthquake

The cathedral was damaged during the 2011 Virginia earthquake. Finial stones on several pinnacles broke off, and several pinnacles twisted out of alignment or collapsed entirely; some gargoyles and other carvings were damaged, and a hole was punched through the metal-clad roof by falling masonry. Cracks have also appeared in the flying buttresses surrounding the apse. Inside, initial inspections revealed less damage, with some mortar joints loose or falling out; the stone vaults have been deemed to be sound. The 5.8 earthquake, the largest the east coast of the United States had seen since 1944, was felt very strongly in Washington, D.C., and damaged several buildings along with the cathedral. Repairs are expected to cost millions and take several years to complete. The cathedral was closed from August 24, 2011 to November 7, 2011.[15] As of August 2013, the costs of on-going repairs have been pegged at $26 million.[16] Phase I of the restoration to repair the internal ceiling's stone and mortar was completed in February 2015. The ten-year, $22 million Phase II operation will repair or replace the damaged stones atop the cathedral.[17]


File:National Cathedral Center.jpg
Looking east, looking up to the choir of the cathedral

Its final design shows a mix of influences from the various Gothic architectural styles of the Middle Ages, identifiable in its pointed arches, flying buttresses, a variety of ceiling vaulting, stained-glass windows and carved decorations in stone, and by its three similar towers, two on the west front and one surmounting the crossing.

Washington National Cathedral consists of a long, narrow rectangular mass formed by a nine-bay nave with wide side aisles and a five-bay chancel, intersected by a six bay transept. Above the crossing, rising 91 m (301 ft) above the ground, is the Gloria in Excelsis Tower; its top, at 206 m (676 ft) above sea level, is the highest point in Washington.[18] The Pilgrim Observation Gallery—which occupies a space about 3/4ths of the way up in the west-end towers—provides sweeping views of the city. In total, the cathedral is 115 m (375 ft) above sea level. Unique in North America, the central tower has two full sets of bells—a 53-bell carillon and a 10-bell peal for change ringing; the change bells are rung by members of the Washington Ringing Society.[19] The cathedral sits on a landscaped Script error: No such module "convert". plot on Mount Saint Alban.[20] The one-story porch projecting from the south transept has a large portal with a carved tympanum. This portal is approached by the Pilgrim Steps, a long flight of steps 12 m (40 ft) wide.

Most of the building is constructed using a buff-colored Indiana limestone over a traditional masonry core. Structural, load-bearing steel is limited to the roof's trusses (traditionally built of timber); concrete is used significantly in the support structures for bells of the central tower, and the floors in the west towers.

The pulpit was carved out of stones from Canterbury Cathedral; Glastonbury Abbey provided stone for the bishop's formal seat, the cathedra. The high altar, The Jerusalem Altar, is made from stones quarried at Solomon's Quarry near Jerusalem, reputedly where the stones for Solomon's Temple were quarried. In the floor directly in front of that altar are set ten stones from the Chapel of Moses on Mount Sinai, representing the Ten Commandments as a foundation for the Jerusalem Altar.

There are many other works of art including over two hundred stained glass windows, the most familiar of which may be the Space Window, honoring man's landing on the Moon, which includes a fragment of lunar rock at its center; the rock was presented at the dedication service on July 21, 1974, the fifth anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission.[21] Extensive wrought iron adorns the building, much of it the work of Samuel Yellin. A substantial gate of forged iron by Albert Paley was installed on the north side of the crypt level in 2008. Intricate woodcarving, wall-sized murals and mosaics, and monumental cast bronze gates can also be found. Most of the interior decorative elements have Christian symbolism, in reference to the church's Episcopalian roots, but the cathedral is filled with memorials to persons or events of national significance: statues of Washington and Lincoln, state seals embedded in the marble floor of the narthex, state flags that hang along the nave, stained glass commemorating events like the Lewis and Clark expedition and the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima.

The cathedral was built with several intentional "flaws" in keeping with an apocryphal medieval custom that sought to illustrate that only God can be perfect.[dubious ] Artistically speaking, these flaws (which often come in the form of intentional asymmetries) draw the observer's focus to the sacred geometry as well as compensate for visual distortions, a practice that has been used since the Pyramids and the Parthenon.[original research?] Architecturally, it is thought that if the main aisle of the cathedral where it meets the cross section were not tilted slightly off its axis, a person who looked straight down the aisle could experience a slight visual distortion, rendering the building shorter than it is, much like looking down railroad tracks.[citation needed] The architects designed the crypt chapels in Norman, Romanesque, and Transitional styles predating the Gothic, as though the cathedral had been built as a successor to earlier churches, a common occurrence in European cathedrals.[citation needed]

Numerous grotesques and gargoyles adorn the exterior, most of them designed by the carvers; one of the more famous of these is a caricature of then-master carver Roger Morigi on the north side of the nave. There were also two competitions held for the public to provide designs to supplement those of the carvers. The second of these produced the famous Darth Vader Grotesque which is high on the northwest tower, sculpted by Jay Hall Carpenter and carved by Patrick J. Plunkett.[22]

The west facade follows an iconographic program of the creation of the world rather than that of the Last Judgement as was traditional in medieval churches. All of the sculptural work was designed by Frederick Hart and features tympanum carvings of the creation of the sun and moon over the outer doors and the creation of man over the center. Hart also sculpted the three statues of Adam and Saints Peter and Paul. The west doors are cast bronze rather than wrought iron. The west rose window, often used as a trademark of the cathedral, was designed by Rowan leCompte and is an abstract depiction of the creation of light. LeCompte, who also designed the clerestory windows and the mosaics in the Resurrection Chapel, chose a nonrepresentational design because he feared that a figural window could fail to be seen adequately from the great distance to the nave.


The cathedral's master plan was designed by George Frederick Bodley, a highly regarded British Gothic Revival architect of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, and was influenced by Canterbury. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. contributed a landscaping plan for the cathedral close. After Bodley died in 1907, his partner Henry Vaughan revised the original design, but work stopped during World War I and Vaughan died in 1917. When work resumed, the chapter hired New York architecture firm Frohman, Robb and Little to execute the building. Philip Hubert Frohman, who had designed his first fully functional home at the age of 14 and received his architectural degree at the age of 16, and his partners worked to perfect Bodley's vision, adding the carillon section of the central tower, enlarging the west façade, and making numerous smaller changes. Ralph Adams Cram was hired to supervise Frohman, because of his experience with the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, but Cram insisted on so many major changes to the original design that Frohman convinced the Cathedral Chapter to fire him. By Frohman's death in 1972, the final plans had been completed and the building was finished accordingly.

Images of architectural details

Leadership and funding

File:National Cathedral Sanctuary Panorama.jpg
East End of the cathedral, with the Ter Sanctus reredos, featuring 110 carved figures surrounding the central figure of Jesus[23]

The cathedral is both the episcopal seat of the Bishop of Washington (currently the Right Reverend Mariann Edgar Budde) and the primatial seat of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church (currently the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori). Budde was elected by the Diocese of Washington in June 2011, to replace Bishop John Bryson Chane; upon her confirmation in November 2011 she became the ninth bishop of the diocese and the first woman to fill the role.

The current dean of the cathedral is Gary R. Hall, who took office in 2012.[24]

Former deans:

The National Cathedral Association (NCA) seeks to raise and provide funds for and promote the Washington National Cathedral. Across the United States, it has more than 14,000 members, more than 88 percent of whom live outside the Washington area, and who are divided into committees by state. Visitors to the cathedral provide another significant source of funds, through donations and group touring fees. Every year, each state has a state day at the cathedral, on which that state is recognized by name in the prayers. Over a span of about four years, each state is further recognized at a Major State Day, at which time those who live in the state are encouraged to make a pilgrimage to the cathedral and dignitaries from the state are invited to speak. American state flags were displayed in the nave until 2007; currently the display of the state flags alternates throughout the year with the display of liturgical banners hung on the pillars, reflecting the seasons of the Church year.

The Nation Family Endowment represents the largest single contribution to the NCA, and is probably the origin of the term "National Cathedral." Francis Q. (Frank) Nation, patriarch of the wilderness real estate and mineral extraction empire, was particularly fond of cathedrals, having spent many warm childhood summers in the dank caverns of Notre Dame cathedral while vacationing in Paris.

The budget, $27 million in 2008, was trimmed to $13 million in 2010. Staff was reduced from 170 to 70. There was an endowment of $50 million.[25]


File:The Washinton National Catheral.JPG
The flags of all the states of the US with the current liturgical banners hung on the pillars.

The worship department is, like the cathedral itself, rooted in the doctrine and practice of the Episcopal Church, and based in the Book of Common Prayer. Four services (and five in the summer) are held each weekday, including the daily Eucharist. Sunday through Thursday, the Cathedral Choirs sing Evensong. The forty-minute service is attended by roughly fifty to seventy-five people (more on Sunday). Five services of the Eucharist are also held on Sunday, including the Contemporary Folk Eucharist held in the Chapel of St. Joseph of Arimathea, and a Healing Eucharist in the late evening.

The cathedral also has been a temporary home to several congregations, including a Jewish synagogue and an Eastern Orthodox community. It has also been the site for several ecumenical and/or interfaith services. In October 2005, at the cathedral, the Rev. Nancy Wilson was consecrated and installed as Moderator (Denominational Executive) of the Metropolitan Community Church, by its founding Moderator, the Rev. Dr. Troy Perry.

Each Christmas, the cathedral holds special services, which are broadcast to the world. The service of lessons and carols is distributed by Public Radio International. Christmas at Washington National Cathedral is a live television broadcast of the 9 a.m. Eucharist on Christmas Day. It is produced by Allbritton Communications and is shown on national affiliates in most cities around the United States. Some affiliates broadcast the service at noon. The Christmas service at the Cathedral was broadcast to the nation on television from 1953 until 2010 and is still webcast live from the Cathedral's homepage.


The Washington National Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys, founded in 1909, is one of very few cathedral choirs of men and boys in the United States with an affiliated school, in the English choir tradition. The 18–22 boys singing treble are of ages 8–14 and attend St. Albans School, the Cathedral school for boys, on vocal scholarships.

In 1997, the Cathedral Choir of Men and Girls was formed by Bruce Neswick, using the same men as the choir of the men and boys. The Choir consists of middle and high school girls attending the National Cathedral School on vocal scholarships. The two choirs currently share service duties and occasionally collaborate.

File:The Great Organ of WNC.jpg
The console of the Great Organ at Washington National Cathedral in 2010. It includes four manuals: the Choir, Great, Swell, and Solo. It is located in the Great Choir.

Both choirs have recently recorded several CDs, including a Christmas album; a U.S. premiere recording of Ståle Kleiberg's Requiem for the Victims of Nazi Persecution; and a patriotic album, America the Beautiful.

The choirs rehearse separately every weekday morning in a graded class incorporated into their school schedule. The choristers sing Evensong five days a week (the Boys Choir on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the Girls Choir on Mondays and Wednesdays). The choirs alternate Sunday worship duties, singing both morning Eucharist and afternoon Evensong when they are on call. The choirs also sing for numerous state and national events. The choirs are also featured annually on Christmas at Washington National Cathedral, broadcast nationally on Christmas Day.

The Great Organ was installed by the Ernest M. Skinner & Son Organ Company in 1938. The original instrument consisted of approximately 8,400 pipes. The instrument was enlarged by the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company in 1963 and again between 1970 and 1975, during which time more than half of the original instrument was removed. The present instrument consists of 189 ranks and 10,647 pipes. It is the largest organ in the city of Washington and one of the 20 largest organs in the world.[26][27]

Michael McCarthy is the Director of Music, Christopher Betts is the Organist and Associate Director of Music, Benjamin Straley is the Assistant Organist, and Jeremy Filsell is the Artist-in-Residence. The carillonneur is Edward M. Nassor.[28] Former organists and choirmasters include Edgar Priest, Robert George Barrow, Paul Callaway, Richard Wayne Dirksen, Douglas Major, Bruce Neswick, James Litton, Erik Wm. Suter, and Scott Dettra.

The resident symphonic chorus of Washington National Cathedral is the Cathedral Choral Society.

The cathedral is unique in North America in having both a carillon and a set of change ringing bells.

The ring of ten bells (tenor 32 long cwt 0 qr 4 lb; 3,588 lb or 1,627 kg in D) are hung in the English style for full circle ringing. All ten were cast in 1962 by Mears & Stainbank (now known as The Whitechapel Bell Foundry) of London, England.[29]

The carillon has 53 bells ranging from Script error: No such module "convert". to Script error: No such module "convert". and was manufactured by John Taylor & Co of Loughborough, England in 1963. The bells are hung dead, that is rigidly fixed, and are struck on the inside by hammers activated from the keyboard.[30]


Several notable American citizens are buried in Washington National Cathedral and its columbarium:

References in popular culture

See also


  1. Episcopal Church (1990). Consecration of the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington: A Litany of Thanksgiving : Celebration of the Holy Eucharist ... : Sunday, September Thirtieth, Nineteen Hundred and Ninety, at Eleven O'clock. Retrieved April 6, 2013. 
  2. The Episcopal Church Center (2011). "Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington". Retrieved April 6, 2013. 
  3. Washington National Cathedral: All Figures
  4. "Episcopal Domestic Fast Facts: 2010" (PDF). Episcopal Church Office of Research. Retrieved June 29, 2012. 
  5. Quinn, Fredrick (1 October 2014). A House of Prayer for All People: A History of Washington National Cathedral. Church Publishing, Inc. p. 3. ISBN 9780819229243. The quest for a National Cathedral, the best-known endeavor of Satterlee's episcopate, had deep roots in American national life. Majore Pierre L'Enfant envisioned "a great church for national purposes" in his original plans for the city of Washington, but nothing came of the idea. After several meetings of leading Washington figures, including planning sessions in the home of Charles C. Glover, president of the Riggs Bank, the Protestant Episcopal Church Foundation was created on January 6, 1893, by Act of Congress and signed by President Benjamin Harrison. 
  6. "National Cathedral, Renwick Gallery win federal funds". The Washington Post. 
  7. "Member Institutions". Washington Theological Consortium. Retrieved October 2, 2009. 
  8. Jayne Clark, "National Cathedral celebrates its centennial", USA Today, June 21 2007.
  9. United States Secretary of State (1893). "An Act to incorporate the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia" (PDF). The Statutes At Large of the United States of America, From December, 1891, To March, 1893, And Recent Treaties, Conventions, and Executive Proclamations (PDF). United States Congress. p. 414. Retrieved 16 November 2014. 
  10. Ripley, Amanda. "Washington National Cathedral". Time. Retrieved 15 November 2014. It is actually an Episcopal church, but Congress has designated it the National House of Prayer. Since 1907, it has been used for state funerals for three Presidents of the United States, monthly emergency unity services during World War II, presidential prayer services and 9/11 memorial ceremonies. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 11.3 "Services Following Deaths of American Presidents". Washington National Cathedral. 
  12. State Funeral for President Ronald W. Reagan June 11, 2004
  13. Presidential Inaugural Prayer Services at Washington National Cathedral
  14. Martin Luther King, Jr. (March 31, 1968). "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution". Retrieved June 14, 2011. 
  15. "D.C. earthquake damages National Cathedral, Washington Monument". ABC News Washington DC. August 25, 2011. Retrieved August 18, 2011. 
  16. "National Cathedral earthquake repairs to top $26 million". Washington, DC: WJLA. August 22, 2013. 
  17. "Making Washington's National Cathedral whole again, Power Player of the Week: Joe Alonso" (VIDEO). Fox News. 5 April 2015. Retrieved 6 April 2015. 
  18. "Washington DC—National Cathedral". National Park Service. Retrieved May 9, 2011. 
  19. The Washington ringing society
  20. Cathedral Figures
  21. The Space Window at the U.S. National Cathedral,, September 12, 2012. Retrieved September 16, 2012
  22. "The Star Wars Villain on the Northwest Tower". Washington National Cathedral. 
  23. "Video and Virtual Tours". Washington National Cathedral. Retrieved September 23, 2007. 
  24. "Gary R. Hall named dean of Washington National Cathedral", Episcopal News Service, July 31, 2012, retrieved December 27, 2012 
  25. Gowen, Annie (June 6, 2010). "Rare books could be the next to go". The Washington Post (Washington, DC). pp. C1. 
  26. "The Top 20 – The World's Largest Pipe Organs". Sacred Classics. April 30, 2008. Retrieved May 3, 2008. 
  27. View the Great Organ's Specifications
  28. "Cathedral Musicians". Washington National Cathedral. Retrieved May 3, 2008. 
  29. Dove. "Washington, Cath Ch of S Peter & S Paul". Dove's Guide for Church Bell Ringers. Retrieved November 29, 2012. 
  30. "Bell Facts & History". Washington National Cathedral. Retrieved November 29, 2012. 
  31. Mistborn 3 Chapter Twenty-Seven Brandon Sanderson


  • Marjorie Hunt, The Stone Carvers: Master Craftsmen of Washington National Cathedral (Smithsonian, 1999).
  • David Hein, Noble Powell and the Episcopal Establishment in the Twentieth Century. Foreword by Peter W. Williams. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 2001; Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2007. Includes a chapter on Powell when he was dean of WNC and warden of the College of Preachers.
  • Step by Step and Stone by Stone: The History of the Washington National Cathedral (WNC, 1990).
  • A Guide to the Washington Cathedral (National Cathedral Association, 1945).
  • Peter W. Williams, Houses of God: Region, Religion, and Architecture in the United States (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).
  • Cathedral Age (magazine).

External links