Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was the Washington National Cathedral, which celebrates its 100th birthday in September. “The formal construction, which started in 1907, was completed on Sept. 29, 1990. But we’re still fine-tuning,” says Beth Mullen, spokeswoman for the cathedral.
To celebrate its centennial and to highlight the achievements by architects, bishops, masons, carvers, sculptors, stained glass artists, horticulturists, landscape designers, blacksmiths, donors and thousands of volunteers who helped build the majestic, Gothic structure on 30 acres at the top of Mount Saint Alban, the cathedral is hosting a 1,700-square-foot exhibit, “Dreamers & Believers: Cathedral Builders,” through October.
The exhibit’s first half is chronological and starts with pictures and letters from the late 1800s to the early 1900s from early movers and shakers of the cathedral idea, including pioneer Bishop Henry Yates Satterlee. He was instrumental in finding an appropriate site, getting a charter — essentially a building permit — from Congress and raising money.
Satterlee also spearheaded the idea of building the cathedral in the Gothic style — like the great medieval churches of England.
“Evidently he’s to have said, ‘Gothic is God’s style,’ ” Ms. Mullen says.
Satterlee got his wish and was present for the laying of the cathedral’s foundation stone in 1907, as was President Theodore Roosevelt.
“Some people think Roosevelt laid the first stone. He didn’t. But he was there, along with about 30,000 other spectators,” Ms. Mullen says.
Pictures and the shiny, inscribed silver trowel used to set the foundation in 1907 and to set the last finial in 1990, are on display, as are early 20th-century landscape designs by Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who worked on shaping the cathedral grounds for two decades.
Among the many architects involved in the cathedral project over the years was Philip Hubert Frohman, perhaps the most famous and definitely the longest-serving. He spent five decades perfecting the cathedral’s design and died before its completion.
“Imagine working that hard and then not being able to see it finished,” says Ms. Mullen, adding that the text-heavy exhibit is not suitable for very young children. “I’d say at least school-aged,” she says.
The exhibit, though, is small and free and can be seen in as little as 10 minutes or as much as an hour or more, she says. Aside from the exhibit cases, there is a 10-minute film showcasing some of the exhibit highlights, including the celebrated stone carvers, many of them Italian-born, including Vincent Palumbo, a fifth-generation stone carver. In the movie, he says, “I spent half of my life in the cathedral,” or about four decades.
Photographs of some of his gargoyles and other creations are on display in the exhibit. Mr. Palumbo and other carvers had a lot of artistic freedom when carving gargoyles. But even when they carved large works by artists such as Frederick Hart, whose haunting “Ex Nihilo” wall sculpture adorns the west facade of the cathedral, they added their personal touch.
“It wasn’t just a matter of copying; it was also about interpreting,” Ms. Mullen says.
Apparently, the carvers were quite the characters, having parties in their workshop-shed that featured champagne and other libations. The exhibit displays a couple of champagne bottles signed with names of carvers from long-ago New Year’s celebrations.
The exhibit also showcases the cathedral’s various types of stained glass windows — there are a total of 233. The first one was installed in 1912, when glass artists adhered to the themes and colors of 15th-century English glass. The last window was installed in 2000, a time when bold colors and contemporary art were incorporated in the design.
Other artists highlighted in the exhibit include blacksmiths, masons and stitchers, many of them volunteers.
But the cathedral could not have been built with the hard work of architects, masons, artists and visionaries alone. It took large sums of money and continuous fundraising efforts to complete the structure. For years during the Depression, construction was interrupted because of lack of funds.
Fundraising efforts included taking out ads in local newspapers urging all Washingtonians to contribute. The appeal was met many times over and contributions as small as $1 (on display are some of the $1 donation cards, which were all archived) and as large as hundreds of thousands of dollars kept rolling in over the years, Ms. Mullen says.
“The founders wanted it to be a national place of worship, and I think that is reflected in the donation cards. … They came from all over, were big and small,” she says. “The cathedral was truly built by the people of this country — it’s a collaborative effort on a grand scale.”
WHEN YOU GO:
WHERE: THE “DREAMERS & BELIEVERS: CATHEDRAL BUILDERS” EXHIBIT IS ON DISPLAY AT THE WASHINGTON NATIONAL CATHEDRAL, MASSACHUSETTS AND WISCONSIN AVENUES NORTHWEST, THROUGH OCTOBER.
HOURS: 10 A.M. TO 5 P.M. MONDAY THROUGH FRIDAY, 10 A.M. TO 4 P.M. SATURDAY, 1 TO 4 P.M. SUNDAY
PARKING: THE CATHEDRAL’S NEW PAY GARAGE AND LIMITED STREET PARKING ARE AVAILABLE.
INFORMATION: 202/537-6200 OR WWW.NATIONALCATHEDRAL.ORG
NOTES: THE CATHEDRAL WILL FEATURE VARIOUS ACTIVITIES IN CELEBRATION OF ITS CENTENNIAL, INCLUDING “CATHEDRAL DAY,” ON SEPT. 29. THE DAY WILL INCLUDE CAROUSEL RIDES AND OTHER CHILDREN’S ACTIVITIES, LIVE MUSIC, WORSHIP, FOOD AND DEMONSTRATIONS ON STAINED GLASS, STONE CARVING AND FLOWER ARRANGING. CALL FOR DETAILS.