Washington National Cathedral — the building with highest point in the District of Columbia — is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world. (Washington National Cathedral)

Washington National Cathedral stands tall in the nation’s capital. It is the city’s fourth-tallest building and the building with the highest point, rising 676 feet above sea level atop Mount Saint Alban in Northwest. Its three large towers can be seen for miles.

A cathedral is the main church in an area headed by an official called a bishop. Washington National Cathedral, officially named the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, is the center of the Episcopal Church in Washington and the nation. People of all faiths, or no particular faith, are among the 500,000 who visit or come to worship each year. Funerals for three presidents and other major services have been held here.

Construction of the cathedral began in 1907 and continued for 83 years. A major earthquake in 2011 badly damaged some areas. Wall supports called buttresses cracked, and some of the 300-plus angels toppled from on high. Workers are still repairing damage to the Indiana limestone exterior.

An architectural wonder

The cathedral was built in the Gothic style, which was popular in Europe from the 12th to 16th century. New building techniques such as buttresses, ribbed ceilings and pointed arches made it possible to have thinner, taller walls with large, colorful windows.

Washington National Cathedral, the sixth-largest cathedral in the world, has 215 stained-glass windows. The most popular holds a piece of moon rock brought back by the Apollo 11 astronauts in 1969.

Another must-see is Darth Vader, carved into the cathedral’s north side. The “Star Wars” villain was one of four winning designs by middle-schoolers in a 1985 contest. Vader is one of 1,242 weird creatures staring down from the cathedral’s neck­stretching exterior.


Look up, and you might see Darth Vader. (Marylou Tousignant)

A gargoyle on the wall. (Marylou Tousignant)
Grotesques and gargoyles

These sometimes funny, sometimes scary stone carvings are called grotesques and gargoyles.

A grotesque (pronounced grow-TESK) is a painting or carving of a strange-looking person or creature. Originally, its job was to drive away evil spirits — so the uglier it was, the better.

A gargoyle (GAR-goy-yool) is a grotesque with a pipe or channel running thorough its head to carry rainwater away from the building. Gargoyles got their name from the gurgling sound the water makes as it rushes through.

The cathedral’s animal grotesques could fill a zoo. They include a frog, dragon, crocodile, rhino, snake and unicorn. One batlike creature’s head was cut off during the earthquake and hasn’t been reattached yet. Carvings of people include a birdwatcher, a thief, a hippie and one called the “Crooked Politician.”


The earthquake that struck in 2011 shook off this gargoyle’s head. (Marylou Tousignant)


One of the 53 carillon bells at Washington National Cathedral. (Washington National Cathedral)
Things to see and do

There’s much more to see (and hear) at the cathedral. Some ideas:

●Children’s chapel: Built to scale for a 6-year-old, it has a mini pipe organ and images of baby animals.

●Pilgrim observation gallery: Check out the city and beyond from this seventh-floor perch with views in all directions.

●Music: The Great Organ has 10,647 pipes. The 53 bells in the carillon (CARE-uh-lawn) range in weight from 17 pounds to 12 tons.

●More carvings and statues: Look for Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks and the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., who preached his last Sunday sermon here four days before he was killed in 1968.

●And more windows: The “Creation” window has 10,000-plus pieces of glass. The windows for generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson recently had two Confederate flags removed after protests about their pro­slavery interpretation. Church officials are deciding whether to remove the windows themselves next year.

If You Go
A stained-glass window at the cathedral features a piece of moon rock. (Marylou Tousignant)

What: Washington National Cathedral

Where: 3101 Wisconsin Avenue NW.

When: It’s open every day, but the times change.

How much: Ages 5 to 17, $8; adults, $12; age 4 and younger, free. No admission charge on Sundays (but tours are limited). A highlights tour is included in the admission price. Other tours are an additional fee.

For more information: Hours, prices and directions can be found at cathedral.org/visit-us/hours or by calling 202-537-6200.

A kid-friendly tour and scavenger hunt are at cathedral.org/visiting-children.

Visitors age 10 and older are invited to take the two-hour gargoyle tour. For information on this and other tours, go to cathedral.org/what-to-do/tours.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Washington National Cathedral is the highest point in Washington, D.C. It is the building with the highest point, but the top of several radio and TV towers in the city are higher.