So we had this gorgeous crepuscular decent over the city into Reagan airport, with all the monuments and buildings lit up against the darkening sky. The Washington Monument and the Capitol buildings were easily identifiable, then there was a huge well-lit building set up on one of the hills outside of downtown, off on its own. And lo, suddenly I found 'visit the Washington National Cathedral' moved from my list of definite maybes to my list of absolute musts.
It is a proper Gothic cathedral. One of the things I learned there was what differentiates a cathedral from a church - a cathedral must have a bishop's chair. I believe this is more about the office than the piece of furniture, but I can't say for certain, and they definitely have both. In fact, it is the seat of two bishops: the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church USA and the Episcopal Bishop of Washington. It is both, they made haste to assure us, an Episcopal church and a "National House of Prayer for All People" - and considering the Tibetan prayer beads and flags for sale in the gift shop alongside the Christian paraphernalia I can't really argue with them. They had a Jewish synagogue meeting there for a while during the construction of their synagogue building, too.
But enough about God - I was there for the architecture. It was magnificent just to be standing in a Gothic Cathedral after looking at pictures and studying them over the years. Flying buttresses, check. No structural steel, check. Gargoyles and grotesques, check - including one in the likeness of Darth Vader. Thankfully whimsy and humor as well as excellent craftsmanship were valued by the designers and builders involved.
It's a proper cathedral in terms of time-frame, as well. It took eighty-three years to build; it was finished in 1990. All that stone-masonry takes time, I imagine. I know there were stone-cutters who spent their entire career working on the Cathedral - which is keen, but also awe-inspiring considering how volatile the 20th century was for many professions.
Speaking of which, my favorite thing at the Cathedral again has to do with space. No, not the Darth Vader grotesque, though I do find that quite amusing. Among the 215 stained glass windows in the Cathedral is one called the Space Window. Stylistically it stands out from the others around it, though not in a jarring fashion - but there are no figures of people or events depicted, just the starry vastness of the solar system and the universe. Embedded in the window is a piece of lunar rock brought back by the Apollo 11 astronauts and presented to the cathedral by Command Module Pilot Michael Collins, who attended St. Albans (a school on the cathedral close).
Not that the other stained glass windows weren't exceptional as well - we were lucky to be there in the afternoon of a bright sunny day, so the windows were all a-light. I could have spent hours just sitting in the nave looking at them. If I get a chance, I'd like to go back and take in their Tea & Tour program - it's during the week and requires reservations, but you go on a full tour of the Cathedral, attend an organ concert (or service, I forget which) and then have high tea.
The cathedral was probably my second favorite place we went, after the Hirshhorn. Probably again in part because I didn't really plan to go there, so I didn't have any major expectations; thus everything was delightful. Being up on the hill and fairly tall in and of itself, there's an excellent view of the city and surrounding countryside from the seventh floor observation promenade as well.
It's the place I would urge people to go and see, if only because I don't know if everyone would necessarily think of it as a destination. I'm just tickled to death that this fantastic work of architecture is our National Cathedral rather than some ugly boxlike monstrosity - it is really rare for a "national" anything to be aesthetically to my taste.