Visitors climb National Cathedral’s central tower, step by cautious step

A guide warned people gathered in the crypt below Washington National Cathedral that the next hour would be physically demanding: not for those weak in the heart, lungs or joints, not for those afraid of heights or anxious about confined spaces. Kathy McClelland, a retired office manager from Tucson, looked at her nephew and said, “I want to be at the back of the group.”

For decades, there have been occasional tours of the central tower, in which people climb 333 steps spiraling up to sweeping views of the city and a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of the heart of the cathedral. But an earthquake seven months ago did millions of dollars’ worth of damage to the building, toppling spires and sending statues crashing to earth.

On Saturday, the cathedral offered the tower climb for the first time since the quake. Hundreds of people came, from a 4-year-old in shiny black wellies, to young men in well-worn hiking boots, to an older lady in four-inch strappy gold heels. They came seeking a view from the highest point in the city, a spiritual respite, a close-up of the delicate carving, a lesson in history, an ad­ven­ture.

“I just think it’s going to be beautiful,” McClelland said, looking around the crypt with its gilt mural and vaulted stone ceiling, as the faster-paced people began the climb. Her nephew Michael McShea, whom she’s visiting this week, carried her black purse as they began to climb the narrow limestone stairs, shadows curling around behind them as they went up.

“I get a little claustrophobic, but not too bad,” she said.

“As long as we’re not looking over edges, I’ll be fine,” McShea said.

The stairs rolled on and on like an Escher print, with occasional lamps glowing in the dark cylindrical stone tower. Alcoves led to elaborate iron gates barring wooden doors, or tiny stained-glass windows.

“There’s the dungeon,” McClelland said, peering down one dark corridor.

Someone up above said, “There is air coming through,” and laughed. “There is air.”

“You ok?” McShea asked McClelland.

“Wow. Whoo!” she said, pausing to rest. “My legs.”

They reached the end of one staircase and stepped into the overcroft, a large room directly over the center of the cross. Volunteers handed out cups of water, as others explained architectural models on display. McClelland flapped her turquoise cardigan to cool herself and then took it off.

A ladder leaned against one wall, and a stack of metal pipes shone in a corner. A shattered stone carving lay in pieces on the floor. A suit of armor stood by a narrow door. Overhead, there were rows of empty champagne bottles, one for each New Year’s Eve party that the stone carvers had begun celebrating there in 1960.

“This is just like grandmother’s attic,” said Dianne Felton, a banker visiting from San Francisco in a delicate dress with coral flowers, “with the Christmas decorations and everything up there.”

On the other side, a rough, wooden bridge led over a warren of dust bunnies on the arches far below.

The 4-year-old girl didn’t go up the next set of stairs. “She’s fine,” her nanny said. “But I’m scared.”

The next set was a series of open metal steps, wound in a tight coil up, up, up. People held both rails, elbows at their waists.

“Just don’t look down,” McClelland said.

Felton had advice, too: “Don’t wear a skirt.”

But when they reached the top, bells rang through the tower and out over the city. “Oh!” McClelland said, eyes widening as she watched people pulling on the giant ropes, following mathematical patterns to play the peal bells.

Edward Nassor, the carillonneur, stepped into a wood-paneled booth with a small gnome and began playing the keyboard that controls the 53 bronze bells. The smallest bell in the carillon weighs 17 pounds. The largest is 12 tons.

McClelland drew close to the window to watch Nassor perform. “It’s beautiful,” she said as the bells echoed all around.

Visitors stepped outside windows onto narrow ledges to look out over the city, its rough edges softened by fog.

“I just don’t like this ramp that wants to catapult me out” 300 feet to the ground, Andy Durham said as he clambered back in with his wife’s help.

Then they were headed back down the metal and stone flights, back down to earth.

Some people paused long to look at the giant rose windows. Some admired gargoyles. Durham and his wife, Christine Cho Durham, an architect, were marveling over the arches.

McClelland, who is Catholic, liked the stillness most of all.

“It’s so quiet,” she said. “You feel so safe here.”

Susan Svrluga is a Virginia rover for the Washington Post, covering anything and everything that’s happening in the Commonwealth.
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