Washington National Cathedral - History and Facts | History Hit

Washington National Cathedral

Washington, District of Columbia, United States

Washington National Cathedral is a site where national events, such as state funerals and Presidential inaugurations, are marked.

Antara Bate

21 Jul 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Washington National Cathedral

Washington National Cathedral is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world, and an architectural masterpiece with its giant vaulted ceilings. It is a listed monument on America’s National Register of Historic Places, and is also the designated House of Prayer of the USA, serving as a gathering place for America in times of sorrow and celebration. It has been the site of the swearing in of presidents, national celebrations and state and presidential funerals, as well as many historic moments, including the final Sunday sermon delivered by Martin Luther King.

Washington National Cathedral history

Pierre L’Enfant’s original design for the new capital city of Washington D.C. included a “great church for national purposes”, but it was only on 6 January 1893 that a congressional charter authorised a cathedral dedicated to religion, education and charity. It was hoped the cathedral would play a role similar to Westminster Abbey in the UK, being a national shrine and venue for significant services.

Construction began on 29 September 1907, when President Theodore Roosevelt helped lay the foundation stone, and the cathedral was finally completed 83 years later when President George H.W. Bush oversaw the laying of the final stone (the ‘final finial’), in 1990. The cathedral features Neo-Gothic architecture, closely modelled on the English Gothic style of the late 14th century, complemented by ornate wooden carvings, gargoyles, mosaics and more than 200 stained glass windows.

Throughout the years (including during its construction), the National Cathedral has hosted many national memorial services, celebrations and funerals, including services such as those for the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the funerals of two presidents – Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan.

Decorative and restorative work to the cathedral was needed after it sustained damage from the nearby Virginia earthquake in 2011.

Washington National Cathedral today

The Cathedral’s attractions include its stained glass windows, which depict an array of themes and events ranging from nature to space exploration and the American Civil War. Memorials appear throughout the Cathedral, including the War Memorial Chapel, as do exhibits and numerous works of art. The tomb of President Woodrow Wilson, the only president to be buried in the District of Columbia, is also located there.

Today the cathedral remains as the “spiritual home for the nation”, and welcomes people of all faiths from around the world. Visitors can explore the history of Washington National Cathedral through self-guided tours, audio tours, or guided tours following various themes. The Cathedral’s website provides live and archived webcasts of its services, concerts, and other special events including choir performances, musical concerts and organ recitals that take place throughout the year.

The cathedral is officially dedicated as the “Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington”, and is an active member of The Episcopal Church. As it receives no direct support from the federal government or any national church body, it is supported by worldwide donors. Over 270,000 people visit the cathedral each year.

Getting to Washington National Cathedral

The Cathedral is located at the corner of Massachusetts and Wisconsin Avenues in northwest Washington, D.C., on a piece of land known as Mount St. Alban.

To drive from Washington, take Massachusetts Avenue north to Wisconsin Avenue. Turn right onto Wisconsin Avenue and the Cathedral will be on the right. The cathedral has an underground car park.

The closest station is the Metrorail red line, and bus routes 31, 33 and 96 also stop nearby. The nearest bus stop is Woodley Road.

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