The Not-So-Straight and Narrow

You can't really claim to know a place until you collect a handful of useless but interesting facts about its attractions that will surprise even grizzled veterans. One of my favorite such stumpers is the little-noticed deviation from perfection in the magnificent Washington National Cathedral. That imposing edifice is a model of order and symmetry, but its main axis, after traveling in a straight line from the west end of the nave to the crossing, veers slightly but noticeably to the left as it moves toward the east end of the choir.

I first noticed this phenomenon when, while gazing absent-mindedly at the marble flooring of the crossing, I noticed an irregularity in its pattern. My first suspicion was that the bedrock had been unable to support a "straight-line" structure. A clergy friend who happened to be there gave a more arresting theory: The tilting of the axis was intended to represent the head of Christ falling to one side as He died.

I have since discovered a work on medieval French church architecture in which the author devotes a page to "The Bent Axis" in various cathedrals. He advances both of the above hypotheses, and adds a poetic third: a conscious avoidance of symmetry to reflect the imperfection of all things human.

Whatever. The slight angle has some real aesthetic benefits, reducing the tunnel effect and permitting the viewer from the west end of the nave to see something of the right side of the choir, with its handsome choir stalls, rich paneling and organ pipes--a more interesting sight than the steady march of piers all the way from one end to the other.

While this axis shift is no secret, very few not involved with the cathedral seem to know about it.

And that's where you come in.

--J. William Doolittle, Washington

National Resting Place

Caught at National Airport with unpromising hours to fill? It could happen. And when it does, there's a surprising bit of tourism that can be accomplished without leaving the grounds.

It used to be a chore finding the Secret Spot. But thanks to a landscaped outdoor path up a hillock between two parking garages (A and B/C) and convenient to the outdoor walkway from the Metro, you no longer have to trudge through ditches and holes, scattered rocks, weeds and high grass with scurrying rodents. This one acre--all that remains of the 2,700-acre 18th-century Abingdon Plantation--was on its way to becoming another parking garage, until preservationists persuaded authorities it was worth keeping. Now the flower-lined walkway leads to a well-maintained summit with the brick foundation of Abingdon House, birthplace of Nellie Custis, the beloved granddaughter of George Washington. The house stood here for nearly 190 years, until it burned down in 1930.

Elsewhere in the airport, fragments of glassware, pottery and porcelain and coins unearthed at the site have been put on display next to the Continental Airlines lounge between the new and old terminals. But here, aside from some historical markers and the standing bricks, the main attraction is leaf-rustling peace, a bird's-eye view of the Metro, Runway 15-33, and a glimpse across the Potomac of Southeast Washington. Attached to the iron fence guarding the grounds is a sign saying that Abingdon is open from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. But I doubt seriously if visitors will be thrown out if they stay past the closing hour. The fact is, I almost always have it to myself at any hour. And I'm not even waiting for a plane.

--Eric A. Green, Arlington

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CAPTION: National Cathedral's spectacular asymmetry.

CAPTION: What's left of Abingdon House, the birthplace of Nellie Custis.