Washington National Cathedral is raising money for repairs from a 2011 earthquake by having visitors build a Lego model of the cathedral. The light from a cellphone shows off a stained glass window in Bethlehem Chapel. (Marylou Tousignant)

When Charles E. Fulcher Jr., director of visitor programs at Washington National Cathedral, traveled to Durham, England, a few years ago, he wanted to see that city’s centuries-old cathedral. But more than that, he wanted to see the mini-cathedral inside the historic house of worship — the one made of 300,000 Lego bricks.

Fulcher had an idea. Durham built its Lego cathedral as a fundraising project. People paid a small amount per brick, then put their bricks on the model.

With Washington’s cathedral needing millions of dollars to repair damage from a 2011 earthquake, Fulcher thought a Lego cathedral might be popular here, too. “That sounds amazing,” people said when he floated the idea. “We’ve got to do that.”

So they are.

When it’s done in two to three years, Washington’s Lego cathedral will be the largest public Lego project ever — with about 500,000 bricks selling for $2 each.

Now in its second month, the Lego project’s foundation is finished, Bethlehem Chapel is nearly complete, and sturdy pillars are rising in the nave, or central area. Volunteers help visitors who buy bricks to fit them on modules that, when complete, are added to the large model. Online donations are also welcome.


Claire Babb of River Edge, New Jersey, got to place 100 bricks, which finished off one of the Lego cathedral's large pillars. (Marylou Tousignant)

“When kids come in, they’re like, ‘Wow!’ It’s the size of a minivan,” said spokesman Kevin Eckstrom. “It’s hard to imagine the scope until you see it.”

“This is really cool,” said Claire Babb, 10, a first-time visitor from River Edge, New Jersey. Claire’s dad paid for 100 bricks, which she attached lickety-split to complete a pillar that was then placed in the model’s nave. Claire has done lots of Lego projects, but this one is special, she said, “because it’s more intricate, and it’s actually helping a church. ... I’ll definitely come back to see the cathedral when it’s fixed, and know that I helped.”

In many cities, cathedrals are the heart of civic life, both as religious and community centers. Thousands mourned outside the Notre Dame in Paris, France, last week after flames raced through the cathedral’s attic, destroying its wood roof and toppling a 300-foot spire. Officials vowed to repair the damage.

Similar work has been ongoing at Washington’s cathedral since the 2011 earthquake shook loose stones and cracked some supports. The Lego project will help pay the $34 million repair bill.

District dad Andrew Martin, who has volunteered at the site for 10 years, said, “This is one of the neatest ways to share the cathedral I’ve seen.” His daughters, Natalie, 8, and Genevieve, 6, were among the earliest kids to join the Lego work crew.

“This is a really big thing for the National Cathedral and the whole D.C. area,” Natalie said. “It’s exciting to know that your piece will be on display, and you’re a big part of this cathedral.” Natalie especially liked that the color of the Lego bricks matches the buff Indiana limestone in the real cathedral.

The model is being designed (yes, it’s still a work in progress) by the British company Bright Bricks. The pieces are all “off the shelf,” Fulcher said. But as with any Lego build, creativity is important.

A cross in Bethlehem Chapel was made from a Lego tire iron. The angels at the foot of Bishop Henry Satterlee’s tomb are Star Wars battle droids. And their bendy arms are used for arches and round window casings.

Most of the cathedral’s 3,000-plus carvings won’t appear in Lego form. One that will is Darth Vader, who glares at visitors from the cathedral’s north side. His Lego likeness will be just as creepy.

How to participate?

If you live in or near the nation’s capital or plan to visit in the next two years, stop by the cathedral gift shop and buy a brick or two. Volunteers will help you place your brick(s) in the module currently being built. The cathedral is at 3101 Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest Washington.

If you live elsewhere, your parents or another adult can donate bricks online in your name. You can also sign up to get updates and photos as the building rises.

More information is at cathedral.org/lego.