The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. is dedicated to its mission to serve as a house of prayer for all people. Visitors can enjoy the exterior and interior architecture, stained glass windows, and chapels as well as guided tours, educational programs, worship services, concerts, and outdoor gardens. Famous elements of the exterior of the cathedral include the Rose Window, made from 10,000 pieces of stained glass, and the Space Window, which uses stained glass to honor the exploration of the moon and man’s first steps there. Exterior sculptures include the flying buttresses, gargoyles, and sculptures of St. Peter and St. Paul. “Ex Nihilo” is a group of carvings on the exterior of the cathedral, which represent the birth of mankind. Completed by sculptor Frederick Hart in 1982, it is considered one of the most important religious sculptures of the 20th century. Inside the cathedral, visitors may walk through each of the chapels to view the vaulted ceilings, carvings, woodwork, and stained glass. In the George Washington Bay, a statue of the first president portrays him as a man of faith. Opposite is the Lincoln Bay, in which President Abraham Lincoln is portrayed by a large bronze statue. The décor in this bay symbolizes peace after the Civil War and the themes of reconciliation and reunion. There are sculptures in the cathedral of figures central to American history, including Rosa Parks, Jonathan Daniels, Helen Keller, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sculptures of theological figures include Mother Theresa, Albert Schweitzer, and Pope John XXIII.
Tours are offered all year round and may be self-guided or accompanied by an audio-guide, or visitors may take part in one of the themed tours. The popular Tower Climb Tour allows visitors to climb the 333 steps of the central tower, view details of the gargoyles, and enjoy the view of Washington D.C. from the top. The Service & Sacrifice Tour illuminates the details of the cathedral’s representation of American servicemen and women, and important historical events in the nation’s military. Outside the cathedral, the Garden Tour is available all year round, and the Bird and Woods Walk is offered throughout the summer. The Highlights Tour is a complementary, brief 30-minute tour that points out the cathedral’s most interesting features to first-time visitors.
History: The National Cathedral was commissioned in 1791 by President George Washington. Washington, along with the architect Pierre L’Enfant, had a vision for a “great church for national purposes.” In 1896, Right Rev. Henry Yates Satterlee chose the location for the cathedral, at the top of Mount Saint Alban, overlooking the Washington D.C. area. In 1907, the foundation stone was laid for what would become the longest running construction project in Washington. The completion of the West Towers in 1990 marked the end of the 83-year project. Through the years, the cathedral has been host to a number of events of historical importance. In 1918, the cathedral offered a Thanksgiving service for the end of the First World War, attended by President Woodrow Wilson. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr preached his final Sunday sermon from the Canterbury Pulpit in 1968. In 2001, the cathedral offered a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance three days after the September 11th attacks. Prayer services for presidential inaugurations have included Franklin D Roosevelt’s second inauguration (1937), George H.W. Bush (1989), and President Barack Obama (2009 and 2013). Presidential funerals have included Dwight D Eisenhower (1969), President Ronald Regan (2004), and President Gerald Ford (2009).
Ongoing Programs and Education: The cathedral is part of the Episcopal Church and weekly services are available and open to all. In addition, the cathedral offers public programming weekday evenings. Events include meditation and mindfulness practices, bible readings, and silent prayers. Music is an integral part of the cathedral and programs include organ recitals and demonstrations, evensong performances by the choir, and concerts by visiting performers.
Past and Future Exhibits: The Cathedral’s Pilgrim Observation Gallery is home to an exhibit space. Past exhibits have included Carnival of Animals, an exhibit of 8 bronze animal sculptures by the Danish artist Bjørn Skaarup, and Holy City: A Pilgrimage of Sight, a series of nine paintings by the British artist Brian Whelan, which represent the three Abrahamic faiths of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. An ongoing exhibit titled Though the Earth be Moved informs visitors about the 2011 earthquake, the significant damage it did to the cathedral, and the ongoing efforts to restore and repair damaged areas.
Back to: Washington, D.C.
3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20016, Phone: 202-537-6200