WASHINGTON NATIONAL CATHEDRAL
3101 Wisconsin Ave NW
Washington, DC 20016
When George Washington became our country’s first president, he commissioned Pierre L’Enfant to design DC to be the capitol of our new nation. In 1792 L’Enfant’s city plans included Washington’s desire for “a great church for national purposes”. Years later, a formal charter from Congress approved the construction of the national cathedral to begin on the “most commanding point in the city”, atop DC’s highest point, Mt. Saint Albans. As all cathedrals built in the style of 14th century gothic architecture, every stone in our national cathedral was entirely hand-carved and placed. As such, construction of the building took 83 years to finish, and it stands as the 6th largest cathedral in the world (and largest completed cathedral in the U.S.). During the course of the 83 years of construction, the United States went through many monumental events that immeasurably shaped its people and future (two world wars, space exploration, civil rights movement, etc.). The courageous, selfless, and honorable Americans who sacrificed and led our nation through these notable periods in the development of our nation are captured in the stained glass windows, the stone carvings, and woven tapestries that make up the unique decorations of our national cathedral.
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More about the National Cathedral
While the Cathedral is modelled after the 14th century gothic design of European cathedrals, the artistic adornments inside our nation’s cathedral make it uniquely and distinctly American by every measure. The windows & carvings honor Americans who helped our country achieve greatness through their compassion, bravery, and intelligence. Highlights for all visitors to see include:
- The Space Window featuring a moon rock from the Sea of Tranquility brought back to earth by the Apollo 11 astronauts after our first visit to the moon.
- Approximately a dozen windows and carvings on the north arcade depicting Nobel Peace Prize winners
- Carvings of civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, and Jonathan Daniels
- Windows honoring our military branches, victories, and sacrifices including those depicting the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, the paratroopers landing at Normandy on D-Day, Paul Revere’s Ride, and Lincoln emancipating the slaves after the Civil War
The cathedral also serves as the final resting places of a number of great Americans including President Woodrow Wilson, Hellen Keller & her teacher Anne Sullivan, and numerous politicians and dignitaries. In addition to Presidential funerals, the cathedral has hosted the final services for astronaut Neil Armstrong, Nelson Mandela, Eleanor Roosevelt, among many other important figures in history.
In another distinctly American spin on traditional cathedrals, which shows our humor and culture, is the collection of 1,000+ gargoyles and grotesques that line the massive towers and eaves. They include a carving of Star Wars villain Darth Vader, a carved “security camera” pointed down the road at the Russian Embassy (installed during the height of the Cold War), numerous caricatures of animals and people acting out in light-hearted activities (i.e. a dentist drilling a walrus’s tooth, tourists overlooking the view to the Mall holding cameras, etc etc).
From a church standpoint, the National Cathedral prides itself on being a catalyst for promoting harmony in our nation and compassion in the world. It is proudly a house of prayer for all people, and a spiritual home for our country. We host every president’s inaugural prayer service when they are elected, their funerals when they pass away, and are here for them in the interceding years for them to address the nation in times of importance when only the most important backdrop for their words will suffice (WWII services, Viet Nam services, 9/11 address, etc). Notable speeches have also been given from the main pulpit by icons such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Billy Graham, and the Dalai Lama).
Other notable features of the cathedral are the 10,650 pipe Great Organ (one of the largest in the world), the iconic Rose Window comprised of over 10,000 individual pieces of glass, and the Bishop’s Garden which was designed by notable architect Frederick Law Olmstead Jr.. It is also notable that the top of the Cathedral’s bell tower is the highest point in DC at 701 feet above sea level (the Washington Monument is next at 555 feet above sea level).