Editors' pick

Tour and Tea

Please note: This event has already occurred.
Tour and Tea photo
Katherine Frey/The Washington Post

Editorial Review

A tea party that’s steeped in art and history

By Christina Barron
Friday, Aug 12, 2011

Washington National Cathedral - the place of worship and architectural marvel - also happens to be a prime location for afternoon tea. Twice a week visitors can take an hour-long guided tour of the Episcopal cathedral and then enjoy an elegant mini meal while getting an amazing view from the city's highest spot.

Docents who lead the tours will tell you they don't work from a script and are free to focus on what interests them most. Jane Junghans, a 30-year cathedral docent who also works as a D.C. tour guide, recently led a lively tour that focused on history.

Junghans took visitors back to 1907, the year the foundation stone was laid. The style was to be Gothic; the material, Indiana limestone. It took craftsmen 83 years before the final finial was put in place. "Everything you're looking at was made by hand," she said of the building's stone, wood, glass and iron.

Junghans motioned to the more than 200 stained-glass windows in the cathedral, noting, "Everywhere you look there's a story." And the stories aren't all what you would expect. Yes, there are plenty that are tied to the Bible. But the theme of the most famous window is not religious at all. It shows Apollo 11 orbiting the moon. Embedded in the glass is a moon rock brought back from that mission.

A window in a chapel honoring the military depicts the Battle of Midway; another shows D-Day. The scenes are "about valor and sacrifice, not death and dying," Junghans said. A small cross in the back of the chapel came from the rubble of the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Junghans's favorite window is a bit of what she called "theology in glass." It tells a cautionary tale about false prophets, whether they are the money-changers from the Bible or televangelists.

Not to be missed is a statue of Abraham Lincoln in a back corner of the cathedral. The president-elect's speech on leaving Springfield, Ill., for Washington is carved into a wall. Nearby, an olive branch with hands reaching from above and below adorns an archway. And Lincoln pennies are embedded into the floor.

After pondering all that symbolism and walking on marble floors for an hour, tourgoers ride seven floors up to the Pilgrim Observation Gallery, where cloth-covered tables feature tiered trays of tasty sandwiches, scones and sweets. Guests may have all the tea they want, but the amount of food won't spoil anyone's dinner. A seat by a window affords an unparalleled view of the cathedral grounds, the rest of Washington and beyond.

All Hallows Guild members, who volunteer to serve tea, are attentive and welcoming. Betty Gordon, who helped start the Tour & Tea in 1990, said jokingly that "sometimes we have more fun than the people who come." But the event is fun, educational and possibly altruistic: Profits go toward beautifying the cathedral's grounds. That, however, is just the icing on the tea cake.