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 completed with the placement of the final stone on the west front towers on September 29, 1990, 83 years (to the day) 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 services and 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, and Ford; the burials of Helen Keller and her companion, Anne Sullivan, inside the cathedral; the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s final sermon; a round-the-clock prayer vigil in the Holy Spirit Chapel 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.
The best way to explore the cathedral is to take a 30-minute guided highlights tour (the tour is included in your admission price); the tours leave continually from the west end of the nave. You can also walk through on your own, using a self-guiding brochure available in several languages. 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. Call tel. 202/537-2228 or book online at https://tix.cathedral.org.
The cathedral hosts numerous events: organ recitals and other types of concerts; choir performances; an annual flower mart; and the playing of the 53-bell carillon. The Cathedral’s coffeehouse/cafe, Open City at the National Cathedral, operated by the owners of Tryst in Adams Morgan, is open Monday through Friday 7am to 6pm, Saturday and Sunday 8am to 6pm. The eatery is located inside the restored Old Baptistry, near the Bishop’s Garden.
Note: 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.