The Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, also known as the National Cathedral, is located on Wisconsin and Massachusetts Avenues in Washington DC. Although it is an Episcopal church, it is open to those of all denominations, billing itself as “A National House of Prayer for All People”. It is one of the last cathedrals in the world to be done in the classic Gothic style.
"The idea for a national cathedral is as old as Washington itself. In 1791, when Congress selected the site to be the capital of the United States, President George Washington commissioned Major Pierre l'Enfant to design an overall plan for the future seat of government. Included in l'Enfant's plan was a church, 'intended for national purposes, such as public prayer, thanksgiving, funeral orations, etc., and assigned to the special use of no particular Sect or denomination, but equally open to all. ' "
--National Cathedral website, http://www.cathedral.org/cathedral/discover/history.shtml
It took more than a century for the first official step in the building of the National Cathedral to occur. On January 6, 1893, Congress granted a charter to the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia, allowing it to establish a cathedral. President Benjamin Harrison signed this charter, with a site,Mount Saint Alban in northwest DC, chosen in 1896. The foundation stone was laid in 1907, with President Theodore Roosevelt attending the ceremony.
It took the next 83 years (with a three-year forced hiatus between 1977 – 1980 due to lack of funds) for the Cathedral to be built, although daily services had been offered since 1912. In 1990, the construction was finally concluded with the completion of the west towers.
Selected interesting features of the Cathedral, taken from the Cathedral’s website at http://www.cathedral.org/cathedral/discover/facts.shtml.
* Higher even than the Washington Monument, the second highest building in Washington DC. By law no building can be higher than the US Capitol on the Mall, which is why most buildings in DC are about 10 stories tall.
Other features (that I learned on a tour):
- A grotesque of Darth Vader is on the east roof. The grotesque was picked from a grotesque-designing contest for schoolkids. An image is available at http://www.cathedral.org/cathedral/ under the “Discover” heading.
- Flags of all 50 states, the flag of Washington DC, and the United States flag are hung in the nave. Each Sunday, a state flag is brought down the nave in the Mass processional, and prayers are said for that state. On the 51st Sunday of the year, the Washington DC flag is processed, and on the 52nd, the United States flag.
- Just within the entrance to the nave, there are two statues of presidents: Abraham Lincoln on the north side, and George Washington on the south. Lincoln’s niche features a floor panel inlaid with pennies from each state that was in the USA when Lincoln was president.
- The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached his last Sunday sermon there five days before he was assassinated in 1968, which drew the largest crowd the Cathedral has seen to this day.
The Cathedral is sometimes featured in movies and TV, most recently in the funeral episode/season finale of The West Wing in 2001. The tympanum carving on the west facade (the ”front”) was used in The Devil’s Advocate.
Washington National Cathedral: http://www.cathedral.org/cathedral
Glossary of cathedral terms: http://www.cathedral.org/cathedral/discover/glossary.shtml