The National Cathedral is planning to permanently relocate the All Hallows Guild’s Herb Cottage gift shop from the baptistry building it has occupied for decades. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Stiehm)
February 1, 2013

The Washington National Cathedral is on a fast track to the future, with the news that gay weddings are on the horizon there. The Episcopalian leadership recently diversified with the coming of the local diocese’s first elected female bishop, the Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde. The new dean, the Rev. Gary Hall, is already a media star for championing gun control in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., school shooting.

Amid such social progress, it’s sad that the National Cathedral is in danger of leaving behind a piece of its past. The Herb Cottage gift shop, long housed in a vintage baptistry full of character and charm, may be permanently displaced by a cafe. This plan was just approved by cathedral officials, and a request for proposals has been issued. Meanwhile, the 1904 building stands empty on the cathedral close.

Cathedral leaders fail to honor the shop’s place in the community’s heart, but they may know not what they do. They have not consulted widely, to put it mildly, which would risk an outcry.

The current plan is not much of a thank-you note to the All Hallows Guild, the women’s volunteer organization that runs the gift shop to benefit the cathedral gardens and grounds. Love, money and work have been given over time to make the flowers and gardens a generous gift to the spirit of all comers. I’m not religious, but the Bishop’s Garden a short walk away gives me pleasure and solace. We have the kindness of women to thank for that.

What most people don’t know: It wasn’t the 2011 earthquake that closed the cottage. It was a crane, doing work on the quake-damaged cathedral, that crashed down on the edge of the structure amid heavy rains, taking with it a statue of Pan, a fig tree, the fragrant corkscrew vines and the lush landscape.

A cheery place for the neighborhood, congregation and visitors, the gift shop was relocated to a space in the parking structure during the repairs — a loss to the cathedral’s vibrancy. Initially, the commonly shared plan was for the shop to return to its home space in the cottage, though this was not codified or binding; the building belongs to the Cathedral, not the Guild. But now the Guild is being offered another venue, the Church House garage. Not so nice compared with the cottage, where the shop has operated since the 1930s.

But for the crane in the rain, the shop would still be there for those seeking a wedding present, candles, note cards or paper pearls made in Kenya — not to mention for schoolboys coming in for rock candy, only 75 cents. It is a women’s shop, but there’s a chair for husbands. People visit it from all over the world. I know, because I have worked there and still lend a hand when needed. When I came to Washington from Baltimore about four years ago, it was an inviting enclave, with a bit of everything.

The disruption, delay and uncertainty have hurt the morale of the All Hallows Guild. It has been too polite to break the public silence that surrounds the subject of the empty cottage. (Not being a member, I speak freely.) It’s hard to put a price on the guild’s volunteer work in organizing the fundraising spring fair, the Flower Mart. Composed mostly of older ladies, the guild provides a link to a gracious era by putting on an English tea in the towers twice a week. Don’t tell me there’s no time for that anymore.

Think of it this way. The Gothic architecture is the masculine component of the cathedral, while the gardens are the women’s design component, based on an original Olmsted landscape map. The first dean’s wife, Florence Bratenahl, is legendary because she created an enchanting Gothic garden, the Bishop’s Garden, to accompany the stone cathedral in a kind of a duet. A woman of vision, she wrote away for trees and blossoms, collecting plantings from all over. She also founded the All Hallows Guild in 1916 to carry on the mission.

Ever since, generations of women have kept that faith. Their civic lifework must not be displaced by a stealthy plan started by the crane in the rain.

Jamie Stiehm is a Creators Syndicate columnist.