- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 18, 2005

The Washington National Cathedral, the center tower of which is the highest point in the city, is not just a place of worship for more than 200,000 people a year. It is also a top tourist attraction.

“We have more than 700,000 visitors a year [including worshippers]. A lot of families with children, a lot of school groups,” says Elizabeth Mullen, National Cathedral spokeswoman.

On a recent afternoon, about a half-dozen youth groups were touring the cathedral, which offers several types of tours, including a gargoyle tour, behind-the-scenes tour and a tour of the gardens (the cathedral sits on 57 acres).

“A lot of kids enjoy doing the behind-the-scenes tour because you get to see the gargoyles up close and you’re up really high. … It’s a little scary,” says Ms. Mullen, looking down from the clerestory, located just under the north rose window.

This is the cathedral’s largest stained-glass window. Equally famous, though, is the “Space Window” on the main nave level, she says. It incorporates a lunar rock from the Apollo 11 mission.

Children must be at least 12 years old to take the behind-the-scenes tour, which also includes magnificent views from the roof.

“You can see RFK stadium. … I guess that’s the Basilica [of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception] over there, and of course our 57-acre campus,” Ms. Mullen says.

This outdoor portion of the tour also provides close-ups of the unique, sometimes scary-looking gargoyles and grotesques.

“The stone-carvers were quite the irreverent crew. You can tell they had fun with the gargoyles. Some of them have devil’s horns and tails,” she says.

Gargoyles and grotesques are not just for decoration; they deflect water. Gargoyles have a gutterlike contraption in their mouths to funnel the water out. Grotesques, which are not equipped with piping, simply deflect the water off their heads.

“I think middle school boys especially like the gargoyles. They like anything that’s scary,” she says.

One of the most famous grotesques at the cathedral is the “Star Wars” character Darth Vader, situated way up on the tower. Visitors interested in finding the grotesque should bring binoculars, Ms. Mullen says.

A gargoyle workshop — the Gargoyle’s Den — is offered from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every Saturday, held — where else? — in the cathedral’s crypt. It’s open to children ages 6 through 12. Children are invited to try their hands at stone-carving and make their own gargoyle to take home. Children must be accompanied by a supervising adult. The fee is $5 per group of up to four. Additional participants pay $1 each.

Another family activity is the Family Saturday program, which runs once a month and features different topics each time. It is open to children 4 to 8, who must have an adult companion. Two sessions are offered: 10 to 11:30 a.m. and noon to 1:30 p.m. The next Family Saturday, titled “Marvelous Mosaics,” will be held next weekend. The fee is $6 per child.

Reservations, required for both the gargoyle workshop and the Family Saturday program, can be made by calling 202/537-2934.

Organized activities and docent-led tours are not necessary to have a rewarding and fun time at the cathedral, Ms. Mullen says.

“We have self-guided tours, and many people like to walk the grounds. The rose garden is beautiful and the greenhouse is wonderful,” she says.

The greenhouse has plants and gardening items for sale. A gift shop and snack bar with ice cream, sandwiches and coffee are in the basement of the cathedral.

The grounds have little street signs pointing to different places of interest. There is so much to see that visitors may want to make repeat visits, Ms. Mullen says. A recent 90-minute tour of the cathedral and the grounds just scratched the surface.

The cathedral is also home to a children’s chapel (where everything is miniature), medieval tapestries and a pulpit from Canterbury.

“There’s of course the religious aspect, which is important to some and not to others. But you can also learn about architecture, art, stone-carving, even American history,” Ms. Mullen says.

“Martin Luther King held his last sermon here. That’s pretty amazing to think about,” she says. “Five days later, there was a service for him here.”

Facts and figures:

• The cathedral has about 700,000 visitors and worshippers a year; it seats approximately 4,000 people.

• It took 83 years to build.

• It weighs 150,000 tons; the average piece of stone weighs 300 pounds; the heaviest piece of stone is a 5.5-ton “boss” — a raised ornament in a vaulted ceiling — over the west balcony.

• The center tower is as tall as a 30-story building. It is 676 feet above sea level, making its top the highest point in Washington. The cathedral is more than 500 feet long.

• The north rose window, which is the cathedral’s largest stained-glass window, is 26 feet in diameter. The west rose window has 10,500 pieces of stained glass.

• There are 110 gargoyles, 215 stained-glass windows and 1,500 pieces of needlepoint at the cathedral.

• It is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world and the second-largest in the United States, after Saint John’s in New York City. The world’s largest cathedral is St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

When you go:

Location: The Washington National Cathedral is located at Massachusetts and Wisconsin avenues NW in the District.

Directions: From the Beltway, take the Wisconsin Avenue exit. Stay on Wisconsin Avenue for about 6 miles. The cathedral will be on the left.

Hours: The cathedral is open from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday and 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Tours are available daily.

Parking: Limited parking is available on cathedral grounds.

Admission: Admission to the cathedral itself is free. Donations of $3 for adults and $1 for children are encouraged for the tours. The family workshop is $6 per child. Admission for the gargoyle workshop is $5 for a group of up to four people. Each additional person in the group pays $1.

Information: 202/537-6200 or www.cathedral.org. To make reservations for any of the family programs and workshops, call 202/537-2934.


The cathedral is Metro-accessible. The closest Metro stops are Tenleytown, Woodley Park and Dupont Circle on the Red Line. Connecting buses that stop within a block or two of the cathedral are available at all three Metro stations. For those who prefer to walk, the 1-mile stroll from Tenleytown is downhill.

Wear comfortable shoes. The cathedral is 500 feet long and 10 stories high and sits on 57 acres. The grounds include gardens and a greenhouse.

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