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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Washington National Cathedral

The National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., 1907-1990
--English Gothic (Neo-gothic) with a few American touches.
National Cathedral nave.
It was an idea long in the making. It was a site unequaled in the city. It was under construction for eighty-three years. It is the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, D.C. Pierre Charles L'Enfant's original plans for the nation's capital proposed a site a few blocks east of the White House. Some hundred years later, in 1907, a much more impressive site, Mt. St. Alban in the northwestern sector of the city was chosen, the cornerstone laid by President Teddy Roosevelt. President George H.W. Bush oversaw the placement of the "final finial" in 1990. Though the longest running construction project in the history of the city, as Gothic cathedrals go, a construction period of a mere eighty-three years could almost be classed as "instant church." European cathedrals often marked their construction periods in centuries. My wife and I visited the cathedral in 1969. The west towers were not even begun. I've not visited all that many cathedrals in my vagabond travels, but the only one I've ever seen that compares with it is St. Peter's in Rome.

Washington's National Cathedral under construction around 1930.

Progress as of 1925
Actually, it's only the second largest cathedral in the U.S. St. John the Divine in New York City is larger (both are Episcopal). Size-wise, the National Cathedral is the sixth largest in the world. Apart from the foundation, obviously, where does one begin to build when confronted with a construction project that might well take over a century? The original architect, George Frederick Bodley, the foremost Anglican church architect in England at the time, began with the Bethlehem chapel, on the lower level of the church situated under the high altar. That part was finished by 1912 when the first services were held in the otherwise highly unfinished church. From there, construction moved upstairs to the choir, the transept, the nave and aisles, finally ending with the narthex (the two west towers in this case). (See plan at bottom.) Unlike European cathedrals, the Washington National Cathedral is fully handicap accessible, with elevators and even an underground parking garage.

Toppled crane during 2011 earthquake repairs. Note the upright truck at far left.

2011 Earthquake: some of the decorations fell off.
As is the case for many of the buildings in any nation's capital, the National Cathedral was designed and built as an impressive, as well as expressive stage for the play of history. It's where the nation collectively goes to pray. It's where presidential funerals are sometimes held. It's where one president, Woodrow Wilson (and his wife), were laid to rest. More than that, though, it's an architectural symbol of the Christian life of a nation. From crypt to capstone, the National Cathedral is thoroughly and artistically American. Moreover, it has suffered some of the same slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as has this nation, from a damaging earthquake in 2011, (and subsequent toppling of a crane during repair efforts, above), to green paint vandalism in 2013.

Let's hope God has a sense of humor.
Perhaps no part of the National Cathedral is more thoroughly American than its gargoyles and grotesques (gargoyles serve as often-ugly water spouts, grotesques are simply often ugly decorations). Most are traditionally European in style though translated into American artistic idiom. All have been designed and carved by Americans. Though gargoyles have, almost by definition, tended to be somewhat horrific in nature, those adorning the National Cathedral tend to be more often humorous than terrifying. Some lean toward the cartoonish, others mask subtle social comments, while others reflect literary figures. One in particular, perhaps the cathedral's most famous grotesque, was sculpted from a design submitted in a competition by Nebraska eighth-grader, Chris Rader. It depicts the Star Wars villain, Darth Vader (above). It was positioned high on the cathedral's "dark" side.

National Cathedral floor plan.



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