Lessons in Gothic architecture aren't easy to come by in this Federalist-style city, but the Washington Cathedral offers a good one. Its soaring towers, flying buttresses and vaulted ceilings harken all the way back to the cloud-breaking cathedrals of France and England that were built in the Middle Ages.
Like its medieval forebears, this cathedral was a long time in the making, taking much of the 20th century to complete. The fact that it may be the last of its kind sends people in droves to marvel at its dimensions, its mammoth columns of Indiana limestone and its stained-glass windows full of biblical stories.
Aside from being a powerful testament of faith, the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul (its formal name) is the seat of two ecclesiastical positions -- the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington and the bishop of the Episcopal Church USA -- a fact that distinguishes it from other cathedrals. Although it's under the direction of Episcopalians and holds some 1,200 services each year, it’s meant to be a house of prayer for everyone.
To reach any heights of quiet spirituality, however, a trip downward may be necessary. The Crypt is located on this level; here you'll find Resurrection Chapel, with mosaics depicting scripture scenes. To the right of this is the Cathedral Center for Prayer and Pilgrimage, a carpeted room used for meditation -- there are pillows on the floor and its white walls are washed in candlelight. There are seven other small chapels throughout the church, including the main level's dark, serene Holy Spirit Chapel, which is reserved for quiet prayer.
The cathedral provides a self-guided tour brochure describing points of interest. But absorbing the detail from the windows and bosses (the large projected stones at the intersection of ribs, often carved) may require a hefty knowledge of church tradition. To make sure you're not missing anything, such as the blank choir panel representing Judas among the other 11 apostles carved in wood, the docent-led tours are the way to go. All that's needed to enjoy other pleasures, such as the way certain rays of colored light rest on stone angels, is a good eye.
Taking in everything takes several hours. But 30 minutes allows you a good look around; most guided tours last about 45 minutes. If you opt for the Behind-the-Scenes Tour of places usually off-limits to the public, plan on spending an hour and a half.
The grounds, called the cathedral close, offer as much as the cathedral itself. South of the church is the Bishop's Garden (open daily until dusk), modeled after a medieval walled garden. Across from that is the Herb Cottage (10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily), where dried herbs, teas, books and gifts are sold (profits help maintain the grounds). The Cathedral Store, located on the lower level of the Cathedral, offers Cathedral-specific gifts, as well as gargoyle- and gothic-themed items, and a selection of religious books. All the shops are closed on Christmas and New Year's Day.
The Cathedral’s welcome desk has a printed family guide available, well suited for exploring the Cathedral with young ones. Other favorites for kids are the Children's Chapel, with its miniature organ, altar and chairs. They also like the views from the seventh-floor Pilgrim Observation Gallery. Every Tuesday and Wednesday the room gives new meaning to high tea, which is served after a tour of the cathedral. Tickets are $30 and reservations are required.
If you wish, place your written prayers in the box by the Holy Spirit Chapel before leaving. Every afternoon a Cathedral chaplain says these aloud in the Resurrection Chapel. Not only do you later receive a written acknowledgement, you have the peace of knowing your prayers are in good company -- after all, it took more than stone-carvers to raise this cathedral from the ground.
Guided tours run Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.- 3:30 p.m. (only until 3 p.m. on Saturdays), and Sun., 1 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Behind-the-scenes tours are also available, Mon. through Fri., 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. In addition, the cathedral is open extended hours (until 8 p.m.) on select dates during summer months; several chapels are reserved for private prayer. Call 202/537-6200 for more information.
-- Margaret Hutton
Say what can you see? Finding the best views in Washington
April 25. 2014
By Amy Orndorff
What makes it special: The Washington Monument may be able to claim the status of Washington’s tallest structure, but the National Cathedral’s Gloria in Excelsis Tower has it beat in terms of being the city’s highest spot. The 300-foot-tall tower sits on a hill 400 feet above sea level.
Tower climbs, in which visitors can walk the 333 steps to the top, are offered annually during the cathedral’s Flower Mart. This year, the climbs are on Saturday, May 3, and at 20 minutes they are not for the faint of heart: At times the spiral stairs are tightly enclosed and, at other spots, wide open with stomach-flipping views downward.
The climb begins in the crypt, and the narrow stone steps are dimly illuminated by stained glass windows at each landing. The stone stairs finally let out on the seventh floor, where an expansive southern view awaits. But there’s plenty more hiking to get to the very top floor.
The climb continues up tight, metal stairs past the cathedral’s carillon bells and into the room where bell ringers play the peal bells. Here there are large windows on all four walls, so visitors can gaze out in every direction. In the foreground, you’ll notice ornate stone spires shooting skyward. Beyond that, to the north, you can see Wisconsin Avenue cutting through Bethesda and, on a clear day, all the way to Sugar Loaf Mountain. To the south, you can’t miss the downtown skyline and unparalleled views of the Potomac.
If you can’t make the climb, take the elevator to the Pilgrim Observation Gallery on the seventh floor, which also offers 360-degree views of the city and has signs pointing out landmarks. It’s open daily, and there’s a tea and tour Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 1:30 p.m.
While you’re there: In the tower, in the same room as the first metal staircase, don’t miss the collection of champagne bottles. The dusty assortment of bottles from as far back as 1960 were placed there in honor of master stone carver Vincent Palumbo, who would toast New Year’s with his workers and sign the bottles. The last bottle in the collection came from Palumbo’s funeral in 2000.