Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the capital city included “a great church for national purposes.” Possibly because of early America’s fear of mingling church and state, more than a century elapsed before the foundation for Washington National Cathedral was laid. Its actual name is the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. The Church is Episcopal, but welcomes all denominations, seeking to serve the entire nation as a house of prayer for all people. It has been the setting for every kind of religious observance, from Jewish to Serbian Orthodox.
A church of this magnitude—it’s the sixth-largest cathedral in the world, and the second largest in the U.S.—took a long time to build. Its principal (but not original) architect, Philip Hubert Frohman, worked on the project from 1921 until his death in 1972. The foundation stone was laid in 1907 using the mallet with which George Washington set the Capitol cornerstone. Construction was interrupted by both world wars and by periods of financial difficulty. The cathedral was finally completed with the placement of the last stone on the west front towers in 1990, 83 years after it was begun.
English Gothic in style (with several distinctly 20th-c. innovations, such as a stained-glass window commemorating the flight of Apollo 11 and containing a piece of moon rock), the cathedral is built in the shape of a cross, complete with flying buttresses and 110 gargoyles. Along with the Capitol and the Washington Monument, it is one of the dominant structures on the Washington skyline. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., designed the cathedral’s 59-acre landscaped grounds, which include two lovely gardens (the lawn is ideal for picnicking), three schools, and two gift shops.
Among the many historic events that have taken place at the cathedral are celebrations at the end of World Wars I and II; the burial of President Wilson; funerals for presidents Eisenhower, Reagan, Ford, and George H. W. Bush; the burials of Helen Keller and her companion, Anne Sullivan; the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final sermon; a round-the-clock prayer vigil when Iranians held American hostages captive, and a service attended by the hostages upon their release; and President Bush’s National Prayer and Remembrance service on September 14, 2001, following the cataclysm of September 11.
You can walk through and explore the cathedral on your own, using a complimentary self-guiding brochure available in several languages or a purchased audio guide. Allow additional time to tour the grounds and to visit the Pilgrim Observation Gallery ★, where 70 windows provide panoramic views of Washington and its surroundings. Among the most popular special-interest tours are the Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon Tour and Tea events, which start at 1:30pm with an in-depth look at the cathedral and conclude in the Observation Gallery with a lovely “afternoon tea,” in both the British and literal sense—you’re sitting in the cradle of one of the highest points in Washington, gazing out, while noshing on scones and Devon cream. The cost is $36 per person, and reservations are required. Check online to see which special-interest tours and events are available.
The cathedral hosts numerous events: organ recitals and other types of concerts; choir performances; an annual springtime Flower Mart (with flowers, food, and children's rides); and the playing of the 53-bell carillon.
Note: When you visit, there’s a good chance you’ll still see exterior renovation work. The earthquake of August 23, 2011, damaged some of the pinnacles, flying buttresses, and gargoyles at the very top of the cathedral’s exterior, as well as some minor areas of the interior ceiling. Interior repair work was completed in 2015, so you’ll see a fully restored nave, looking better than ever, in truth, because the restoration included cleaning clerestory windows and stones, the first time ever. Much exterior repair work remains, but the cathedral is completely safe to visit, and its programs continue as usual. Check the website for the most up-to-date opening times, admission prices, and tour info.