Essential Architecture- Washington D.C.

Washington National Cathedral


George F. Bodley and Henry Vaughan, FAIA


Washington, DC




Gothic Revival





Washington National Cathedral has been the site of three presidential state funerals: for Dwight D. Eisenhower, Ronald W. Reagan, Gerald R. Ford and a presidential burial for Woodrow Wilson and a memorial service for Harry Truman.

The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, known as the Washington National Cathedral, is an Episcopal cathedral in Washington, D.C., the capital of the United States. It is a listed monument on the National Register of Historic Places and the designated "National House of Prayer" of the United States. In 2007, it was voted one of the three most beautiful buildings in the United States in a survey by the American Institute of Architects.

The cathedral is the official seat of both the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (Episcopal Church USA) and the Episcopal Diocese of Washington. It is the mother church of the Episcopal Church in the District of Columbia and in the Maryland counties of Charles, Montgomery, Prince George's, and St. Mary's.

The cathedral was built by the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation under a charter granted by Congress on January 6, 1893. Construction began in 1907, when the foundation stone was laid in the presence of President Theodore Roosevelt, and lasted for 83 years; the last finial was placed in the presence of President George H. W. Bush in 1990. The Foundation operates and funds the cathedral, which does not receive any federal or local government funding.

The cathedral is at the intersection of Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues in the Northwest quadrant of Washington. It is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world and second-largest in the United States (the largest being St. John's Cathedral in New York). [1] It is, however, not the tallest or longest church in Washington; that distinction belongs to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, the national patronal Roman Catholic church on the northeast side of the city.

The East End of the cathedral, with the Ter Sanctus reredos, featuring 110 carved figures surrounding the central figure of Jesus.


The west rose window was dedicated in 1976 in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II and President Gerald Ford.

The cathedral is both the episcopal seat of the bishop of Washington (currently the Right Reverend John Bryson Chane) and the primatial seat of the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (currently the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori).

The current dean of the Washington National Cathedral is the Very Reverend Samuel T. Lloyd III, who took office on April 23, 2005. Before becoming dean, Lloyd was the chaplain of the University of the South and later rector of Trinity Church in Boston, Massachusetts.

Former deans:

Alfred Harding (1909–1916)
George C. F. Bratenahl (1916–1936)
Noble C. Powell (1937–1941)
Zebarney T. Phillips (1941–1942)
John W. Suter (1944–1950)
Francis B. Sayre, Jr. (1951–1978)
John T. Walker (1978–1989; simultaneously bishop)
Nathan D. Baxter (1992–2003)

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. In 1893, the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia was granted a charter from Congress to establish the cathedral. The commanding site on Mount Saint Alban was chosen. Henry Yates Satterlee, first Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Washington, chose Frederick Bodley, England'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 henceforth 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. Public funding, if attempted, would likely be challenged as a violation of the First Amendment "Establishment" clause.


A choir rehearsing in the National Cathedral

The Great Organ was installed by the Ernest M. Skinner & Son Organ Company in 1938. The original instrument consisted of approximately 4,800 pipes. The instrument was in enlarged by the Aeolian-Skinner Organ Company in 1963 and again between 1970 and 1975. The present instrument contains 186 ranks and 10,650 pipes. It is the largest organ in the city of Washington.

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 singing 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 two choirs currently share service duties and occasionally collaborate. The girl choristers attend the National Cathedral School on singing scholarships.

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 every day (the Boys Choir on Mondays and Wednesdays and the Girls Choir on Tuesdays and Thursdays). 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.

Michael McCarthy serves as Director of Music, Scott Dettra is Interim Organist, and Christopher Jacobson is Organ Scholar. Former organists and choirmasters include Bruce Neswick, Edgar Priest, Robert George Barrow, Paul Callaway, Richard Wayne Dirksen, Douglas Major, James Litton, and Erik Wm. Suter.

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


The western end of the cathedral

The worship department, led by the Rev. Canon Carol L. Wade, is, like the cathedral itself, rooted in the doctrine and practice of the Episcopal Church, and based in the Book of Common Prayer. Four (five in the summer) services are held each weekday, including the daily Mass. 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 Mass, 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 pro-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 live by Public Radio International. Christmas at Washington National Cathedral is a live television broadcast of the 9 a.m. Mass on Christmas Day. It is produced by Albritton 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 has been broadcast to the nation on television since 1953.

The flags of all the states of the US are displayed in the cathedral's nave.

National Cathedral Association

The National Cathedral Association (NCA) seeks to 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. Every year, a state has a state day at the cathedral, on which that state is recognized by name in the prayers. Every four years, a state has 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 are always displayed in the nave.


Looking east, up the quire of the cathedral

Washington National Cathedral was completed on 29 September 1990 after almost a century of planning and 83 years in construction. 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, ceiling vaulting, stained-glass windows, 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 an eight 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 the District of Columbia; 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. Uniquely, the central tower has two full sets of bells — a 53-bell carillon and a 10-bell peal for change ringing. The cathedral sits on a landscaped 57 acre (230,000 m²) plot on Mount Saint Alban.

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.

The Space Window.

Most of the building is constructed using gray Indiana limestone. Modern materials only replace beams and rafters that would have been built of wood with steel in the roof, or the concrete in the support structures for bells and floors in the west towers.

The pulpit was carved out of stones from Canterbury Cathedral; Glastonbury Abbey provided stone for the bishop's cathedra, his formal seat. The high altar is made from the ledge of rock in which Christ's sepulchre was hewn.

There are 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. Most of the 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 mosaic floor of the narthex, state flags that hang along the nave, stained glass commemorating events like the Lewis and Clark expedition.

The cathedral was built with many intentional "flaws" in keeping with an apocryphal medieval custom that sought to illustrate that only God can be perfect. 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 compensating for visual distortions, a practice that has been used since the Pyramids and the Parthenon. 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 would have a slight feeling of disorientation, like looking down railroad tracks [citation needed]. The architects designed the crypt chapels in Romanesque styles predating the Gothic, as though the cathedral had been built as a successor to earlier churches, a common occurrence in European cathedrals.

Detail of cast bronze front gates made by Ulrich Heim

The Cathedral boasts what is probably the world's only sculpture of Darth Vader on a religious building. During construction of the west towers of the Cathedral, developers decided to hold a competition for children to design decorative sculptures for the Cathedral. The image of the villainous Vader, sculpted by Jay Hall Carpenter and carved by Patrick J. Plunkett, was placed high upon the northwest tower of the Cathedral, fulfilling the role of a traditional grotesque.

The cathedral's master plan was designed by George Frederick Bodley, a prominent British Gothic Revival architect of the time. Famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. contributed an integrated cathedral close to the design. After Bodley died in 1907, his apprentice Henry Vaughan made revisions to the original design, which the cathedral chapter viewed as weak and unsatisfactory. When work resumed after World War I, the chapter hired New York architecture firm Frohman, Robb and Little to execute the building. Philip Hubert Frohman and his partners were committed to perfecting Bodley's vision, including addition of the carillon section of the central tower and the enlargement of the west façade, as well as countless 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. Since Frohman's death in 1971, no major changes have been made.

National House of Prayer
Congress has designated the Washington National Cathedral as the "National House of Prayer", and the building has, over the years, played a role in uniting Americans through both religious and secular services hosted in its precincts. During World War II, monthly services “on behalf of a united people in a time of emergency” were held, and other major events, listed below, have further drawn the attention of the entire American people to the church, entrenching its role as a "national house of prayer."

Major events

The state funeral of Ronald Reagan.

Washington National Cathedral has played host to many major events, showing the cathedral's proud distinction as being "the national house of prayer for all people." Some of the major events that showed the cathedral's proud distinction include the State funerals of three American Presidents:

Dwight Eisenhower (1969)
Eisenhower lay in repose at the cathedral before lying in state
Ronald Reagan (2004) [2]
Gerald Ford (2007)
Funeral for Katharine Graham (2001)
Presidential prayer service the day after a presidential inauguration
Memorial services. Most notable ones:
President Harry Truman (1973)
Truman had planned a state funeral and burial at the cathedral. However, due to the advanced age of his wife Bess when he died, all the services were done in Missouri and were private. Foreign dignitaries gathered for a memorial service at the cathedral a week after the funeral.
Victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks in 2001 during which George W. Bush declared: "Our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil." He also claimed: "This nation is peaceful" and "our unity is a kinship of grief, and a steadfast resolve to prevail against our enemies. And this unity against terror is now extending across the world." [3] British Prime Minister Tony Blair also attended the memorial service. While the rest of the world heard President Bush, Canada saw the simultaneous service on Parliament Hill, the largest single vigil there, in the nation's capital.
In addition, Washington National Cathedral's pulpit was one of the last pulpits from which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke prior to his assassination in 1968.

Many major events have been interfaith services, showing the cathedral's proud distinction. Services held at the cathedral that fall in this category are the 9/11 memorial service and the Reagan funeral.

References in popular culture
As the setting of Margaret Truman's Murder at the National Cathedral.
As the location of Mrs. Landingham's funeral and President Bartlet's resulting tirade against God in the second season finale of The West Wing, Two Cathedrals.
As the location of Leo McGarry's funeral in the seventh season episode of The West Wing, Requiem.
The cathedral close, the area in and around the cathedral, is alluded to often, but rather vaguely, in the movie Along Came a Spider.
Tom Clancy's novel Executive Orders included a memorial service for the late president Rodger Durling, his wife, most of the United States Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Supreme Court that takes place at this location. In an infamous scene, a soldier bearing the president's casket slips on some ice on the front steps and suffers crushed legs.The Washington National Cathedral also contains this program called the "Cathedral Scholars Program."If you would like to learn more visit

^ Jayne Clark, "National Cathedral celebrates its centennial", USA Today, June 21, 2007.
Marjorie Hunt, The Stone Carvers: Master Craftsmen of Washington National Cathedral (Smithsonian, 1999).
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).
David Hein, "For God and Country: Two Historic Churches in the Nation's Capital", Anglican and Episcopal History 56 (March 1987): 123-26.
David Hein, Noble Powell and the Episcopal Establishment in the Twentieth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001; Eugene, Ore.: Wipf & Stock, 2007). Chapter three covers the deanship of the Very Revd Noble C. Powell, who was also Warden of the College of Preachers.
Peter W. Williams, Houses of God: Region, Religion, and Architecture in the United States (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).
Cathedral Age (magazine).
Most of these items should be available in the Cathedral's Museum Shop: see .