What building do you know that weighs 150,000 tons and has a single stone of 5.5 tons? What has a central tower that is over 30,000 stories tall and took $65 million and 83 years to build? What building has 231 stained glass windows, 112 gargoyles, and 288 angles? The National Cathedral! The National Cathedral of Washington, D.C. stands as a spiritual and political monument with an interesting history and important purpose.
Damage from the Earthquake
This past summer on August 23, the National Cathedral was severely damaged as a 5.6 earthquake swept through Washington D.C. Pinnacles and towers, including the central tower, broke and shattered, and the repairs are still not completed. This building, together with the Washington Monument, underwent the most damage in the city from the D.C. earthquake. Four main pinnacles (corner spires) on the central tower were damaged and were taken off for repair, and the stressed flying buttresses still contain cracks on the end.
The cathedral is in the process of repairs. The committee responsible for renovation of the cathedral has raised over $2 million for the first two phases of reconstruction; however, the estimate for work needed to cover the earthquake damage has risen to over $20 million. More than $18 million is still needed for the reconstruction. The first two phases involved stabilizing the damaged stone by scaffolding the exterior and taking cautionary safety measures needed to reopen the cathedral like putting up protective netting for any possible loose mortar. The remaining work will include detailed masonry, intricate stone carving, and extensive scaffolding. If funds become available immediately, the cathedral should be complete with repairs in approximately five years. Currently, limestone has just arrived from Indiana as the cathedral’s stone workers are beginning the more extensive behind the scene work.
Many do not know much about this cathedral, such as its interesting history and name. Its true name is the Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The cathedral is relatively new as workmen only began placing the cathedral’s foundation stones in 1907, and it took over 83 years to build. However, it has been a significant part of our American history as a spiritual center where Americans and our country’s leaders come together to pray, mourn as influential figures pass away, and discuss various economic, social, and political issues. It presides as the second-largest cathedral in the country, sixth-largest cathedral in the world, and the fourth-tallest building in D.C. Well-known for its Neolithic design and architecture, it also holds the seat of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, Katharine Jefferts Schori, and the Bishop of the Diocese of Washington, John Bryson Chane. Over 400,000 tourists visited this monument in 2009, and the current congregation has over 800 members. The National Cathedral has been deemed the National House of Prayer. Many visit this influential monument to enjoy the peaceful tranquility and climb the central tower with its church bells that are hand rung by the Washington Ringing Society daily. Tours to the peak of the tower are only with tickets, but one can also use the elevator without tickets to enter the observation gallery (112 ft above) for a great view of the city and its monuments.
Parts of the Cathedral
The cathedral has various parts, including the main room of prayer, the baptistery, and the crypt, which contains the Bethlehem Chapel, whose alter is the cathedral’s foundation stone. Various chapels are also a part of this monument. They range from a smaller wedding chapel to larger chapels dedicated to saints to a children’s chapel, which is built to the scale of a six-year-old. The cathedral offers many tours to explore all of these different elements.
Here are some other interesting tidbits of information about the cathedral:
- The Space Window on the south aisle of the Cathedral contains a piece of lunar rock.
- There is a sculpture of Darth Vader on top of the Cathedral’s west tower.
- The Cathedral’s central tower is the only place in North America to house both peal and carillon bells.
- The Cathedral labyrinth is a medieval design based on the one in the floor of the nave at Chartres Cathedral in France.
- The Great Organ was expanded multiple times during construction to serve the growing Cathedral.
- The Cathedral is home to one of the few old growth forests still standing in the nation’s capital, Olmsted Woods, designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.
Many believe that the National Cathedral is most well-known for the number of famous politicians that have had their funeral at the monument. These include Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, and Gerald Ford. The memorial services of Warren G. Harding, William Taft, Calvin Coolidge, Harry S. Truman, and Richard M. Nixon were also held at the cathedral. Other memorial services and funerals are listed below:
- Funeral for former first lady Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (1961)
- Memorial service for former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt (1962)
- Memorial service for the casualties of the Vietnam War on November 14, 1982
- Funeral for Secretary of Commerce Ronald Brown (1996)
- Funeral for U.S. Ambassador to France Pamela Harriman (1997)
- Funeral for Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (2001)
- Memorial service for the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks
- Special evensong for the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre
- Funeral for educator and civil rights leader Dorothy Height (2010)
Besides funerals and memorials, other significant occurrences include presidential prayer services after the presidential inaugurations of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937; Ronald Reagan in 1985; George H.W. Bush in 1989; George W. Bush in 2001 and 2005, and Barack Obama in 2009. Finally, Martin Luther King Junior delivered the last Sunday sermon of his life at the National Cathedral, a few days before he was assassinated.
The cathedral houses a world-renowned choir of 18-22 boys that range in age from 8 to 14. The boys attend the St. Albans School, an all boys’ school, located directly next to the cathedral, on singing scholarships as they sing approximately 11 hours a week. This is one of the few choirs remaining in the U.S. that follows the English tradition of all male choir with an affiliated school. Students from both St. Albans and the National Cathedral School for girls hold weekly services at the cathedral, together with special services, such as the schools’ annual Christmas show.
Although many political burials and ceremonies are private, one can explore the National Cathedral website at http://www.nationalcathedral.org/ for a list of public tours. Special and holiday events, the Tower Climb information, and the cathedral’s and central tower’s hours are also located online. One can also attend a weekly mass to watch the choir perform. The mass schedule is also available at the website. This was just a brief overview of the National Cathedral, and one must journey there to discover its true hidden stories and magnificence.