Old World meets New in cathedral in Washington National GOTHIC

September 17, 1995|By Larry Bleiberg | Larry Bleiberg,Dallas Morning News

Washington -- The National Cathedral offers European tradition with a New World twist. From stained glass embedded with a moon rock to a gargoyle of Darth Vader, there's no question the church in northwest Washington is as American as apple pie.

But with flying buttresses and soaring towers, it just happens to look as Old World as Notre Dame.

Cathedrals sometimes elicit yawns from tourists, but this one has so many intriguing details even children will be fascinated.

There's the corner dedicated to Abraham Lincoln, with shiny pennies embedded in the floor. There are wall carvings of animals at play, and there's even a chapel dedicated to children with child-size furniture and Noah's Ark sculpture.

Perched on a hill above downtown Washington, the church -- the seat of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington -- offers visitors a nice change from the museum and monument crowds of Washington's Mall. The atmosphere only a few miles north of the White House is much more relaxed. A tour can be combined with a trip to the nearby Washington National Zoo, or a leisurely lunch in Georgetown.

Visitors will find an intriguing mix of spirituality, architecture and American quirkiness.

The church is modern by cathedral standards. Ground was broken in 1907, with President Teddy Roosevelt presiding over the ceremony.

The building has been in use for decades, but was completed 83 years later, relatively quickly by the standards of cathedral construction. Because of its $65 million cost, the cathedral probably will be the last Gothic structure ever built in the world.

The church, built in the style of the 14th century and made entirely of Indiana limestone, was home to carvers who spent their careers working on the building. As with those who labored on cathedrals of old, the workers played jokes in the stone, carving 110 gargoyles and grotesques into the outer walls.

The cathedral's most popular gargoyle probably is the harried commuter, with briefcase in hand. But Darth Vader is visible on the outside wall, as is a hippie and a movie-maker holding a camera.

There's also a missile-toting hawk and a gas mask-wearing dove, each exhibiting their particular philosophy toward war.

The gargoyles are hard to see, so it helps to bring binoculars. A cathedral volunteer will be able to point out some of the favorites. If nothing else, gargoyle miniatures are for sale in a basement gift shop.

A serious side

There is, of course, a serious side to the building.

Known officially as the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, it is the sixth-largest church in the world, and its central tower is the tallest structure in the capital city, even outreaching the Washington Monument.

HTC The tower is open only one Saturday a year -- this year it's Sept. 30 -- to honor the cathedral's groundbreaking. Other times, visitors can take an elevator to a seventh-floor observation room.

On very clear days, the Blue Ridge Mountains are said to be visible in the distance. But even on a hazy summer afternoon, the downtown monuments are easily seen, as is the vice president's mansion, practically at the cathedral's feet.

The cathedral is open to all denominations. The Dalai Lama has spoken here, as have Jewish, Muslim and Catholic religious leaders. It also is an active church, with more than 1,200 services a year.

In its short life, the building has accounted for its share of history. It's where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last Sunday sermon the week before he was assassinated. Five days later, his memorial service was held here.

The cathedral is the final resting place of 150 people, including Woodrow Wilson, the only president buried in Washington.

Helen Keller also is interred in one of the chambers beneath the main hall. In death as in life, she is accompanied by her teacher and interpreter, Anne Sullivan. A memorial plaque is written in English and Braille, rubbed shiny by curious hands.

As Washington's church, it has held funerals of presidents, diplomats and Supreme Court justices, and it has been the site of celebrations at the end of wars.

The church has several cubbyholes and small chapels, but the main focus is its central hall or nave, which stretches for a 10th of a mile. At the tallest point, it is 10 stories from floor to ceiling.

Flags from each of the U.S. states line the wall, and each side holds bays built around stained-glass windows.

Each window tells a story, many with an American theme.

The Lee-Jackson window, for example, named for the Civil War generals, shows scenes from the conflict. The Mellon Bay has carvings inspired by industrialist Andrew Mellon. There are even windows dedicated to the Lewis and Clark Expedition and to the peaceful use of atomic energy.

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