Tuesday, May 17, 2005

As thousands of movie fans venture out tonight for the midnight release of “Star Wars Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” Darth Vader will keep watch on the District from the spires of the Washington National Cathedral.

The Darth Vader grotesque, a gargoylelike replica of the classic Star Wars villain, was designed by a teenager and in 1986 mounted atop the cathedral’s northwestern tower — or “dark side.”

The grotesque is almost impossible to see without binoculars, but remains among the most popular attractions on the cathedral’s sprawling 57 acres, off Wisconsin and Massachusetts avenues NW.

“People tend to take the self-guided tours … and are always looking for Darth,” said Beth Mullen, a cathedral spokeswoman. “Last week, I saw about 50 people all at one time trying to spot him on the tour. Because of the movie, people are even more interested.”

Christopher Rader of Kearney, Neb., created the grotesque when he was 13 for the 1985 “Draw-A-Grotesque” contest, sponsored by the cathedral and the National Geographic World magazine.

The design won third place and stands among 1,242 gargoyles and grotesques on the cathedral, including the other contest winners: a raccoon, a girl with pigtails and braces, and a big-toothed man brandishing an umbrella. Gargoyles and grotesques are part of the cathedral’s drainage system and serve as water deflectors.

The cathedral — formally named the Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul — was designed as a worship center for all spiritual needs. It is the sixth-largest cathedral in the world and includes stunning artwork, ironwork, masonry, needlepoint and stained glass. The Bible, Christianity and American history serve as the inspiration for nearly everything inside the cathedral.

The cathedral is also the site of many national services, such as those celebrating the swearing-in of presidents, thanksgiving for the release of hostages and mourning for the deaths of leaders, most recently the June 2004 funeral for former President Ronald Reagan.

The Gothic-style chapel of the cathedral was completed in 1912. The main part of the building was completed and dedicated in 1976. The rest of the cathedral — two towers at a cost of $12 million — was finished in 1990.

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