National Cathedral Washington DC

Little did I think that one day I would be visiting and writing about a cathedral where I talk about the Sea of Tranquility on the moon as well as seeing the Dark Side from Star Wars, but here I am.

During my time in Washington, DC I took the time to visit the National Cathedral or, as per its more formal name, Cathedral Church of St. Peter and St. Paul.

As far as cathedrals of this stature and style go, the National Cathedral is very young, but that does not mean it is not full of history, interesting detail and plenty of quirky facts as I soon found out, walking around and within.

outside view of national cathedral washington

BaldHiker Retreats

Construction and History

The National Cathedral took a long 83 years to build. On September 29 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt laid the foundation cornerstone in a ceremony at which over 20,000 people were present. Inside that first stone are pieces of rock from Bethlehem.

Exactly 83 years later on 29 September 1990, President George H.W. Bush was present as the final stone was put in place.

Pierre L’Enfant envisioned a great church for Washington, DC in his designs – a church with no particular denomination. It was to be where the National Portrait Gallery is today.

In the 1890s plans were made for a great Episcopal Church in Washington. Note: The Episcopal Church stems from the Church of England and follows Anglicanism, but after the Revolutionary War, of course, a change of name was needed.

looking up the outside of national cathedral

The area atop Mount St Alban was chosen and purchased, and it grew in size so that it now sprawls an area of 57 acres.

It might have taken 83 years to build as a cathedral but in 1912 the first chapel, the Bethlehem Chapel, opened for services within the building and have continued there to this day.


The gothic style and architecture is taken from middle age 14th century English Cathedrals and, in keeping with that, it is in the shape of a cross with pointed arches, flying buttresses and ribbed vaults.

It has no steel support at all and uses the old traditional way of using stones and keystones to support the building.

view looking down the national cathedral

It is the 2nd largest cathedral in the USA after the Cathedral of St John The Divine in New York.

Gargoyles, Grotesques and Darth Vader

As you walk around the outside you will see it is well adorned with characters. There are over 1200 grotesques, of which are over 100 gargoyles.

skull gargoyle

Difference Between a Gargoyle and a Grotesque

Grotesques are the name for the stone carving creatures that adorn the outside of religious buildings. Nobody knows how they started and some say it was to keep away evil spirits.

A gargoyle is basically a grotesque but is part of the drainage and plumbing system. They normally have a pipe heading out of their mouths, and this is where the water coming off the roof etc is allowed to drain away. Think of a gargoyle as a fancy drainpipe outlet.

So a gargoyle can be a grotesque, but a grotesque is not always a gargoyle.

gargoyle with animals

Darth Vader Grotesque

In the 1980s a competition for children was run to design a new grotesque as the Northwest Tower was being built.

Darth Vader was chosen as one of the winners and thus you can see Lord Vader high on the tower to this day. Unique to say the least.

Darth Vader gargoyle national cathedral washington

It is very high up near the top of the tower so zoom or binoculars are required to see it properly. Plus the sun shines on the opposite side of the tower as it moves around so the Darth Vader grotesque is, in fact…on The Dark Side.

Prophet Stones

In August 2011 a huge earthquake hit the area and millions of dollars of damage was done to the cathedral. Work is still ongoing to restore everything as it should be. You can imagine it is painstaking work.

Stones that you cannot normally see, hidden out of sight, high on the building that were damaged have been put on display at ground level as they are being repaired. The prophet stones are a great example of this.

prophet gargoyle national cathedral

Huge and interesting characters, apparently they are based on Old Testament prophets.

The High Altar

The High Altar in the National Cathedral is huge in scale and contain much detail in its carvings. It also has stone within and around that has come from special places.

high altar of the national cathedral

The limestone used to make the altar came from the same ancient quarry in Jerusalem that it is said the stone for Solomon’s Temple came from.

Also, in front of the altar are 10 stones, representing the Ten Commandments. These stones came from the Chapel of Moses on Mount Sinai.

Moon Rock In The Space Window

space window at the national cathedral

The window above is called the Space Window. It is one of the best known windows in the National Cathedral.

It is significant not just in its design but because of what it contains. Within the centre of the red circle is a 7.18 gram piece of lunar rock that was taken from the Sea of Tranquility during the Apollo 11 mission.

It was donated to the Cathedral by the astronauts from that very mission: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins.

So a stone in the National Cathedral is older than any other cathedral ever at around 3.6 billion years old!

Prominent People Sculptures

As you walk around the cathedral you will see many faces staring down at you. Not just angels and depictions of Christ etc, but real inspirational people of more recent times.

A lot are in dedication to people who have worked tirelessly or helped improve human rights.

Rosa Park and Mother Teresa are two such people.

rosa parks bust national cathedral
mother teresa bust

Also represented is Eleanor Roosevelt who helped shape the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations. She also, as First Lady, championed many social causes.

eleanor roosevelt national cathedral

The Kneelers

As you enter St John’s Chapel within the Cathedral you will notice the red kneelers with intricate needlework decorating them.

Each one has a name dedicated to famous people including Presidents, world dignitaries, authors etc.

If you walk around you will find the one for our Queen Elizabeth II.

kneeling prayer cushions national cathedral

Queen Elizabeth II came here in 1976 and was present with President Ford to the dedication of the Rose Window.

In the War memorial Chapel is a kneeler that was hand made with needlework by her mother, Elizabeth The Queen Mother.

rose window

More Interesting Facts

There are so many interesting facts I learned on my visit.

It cost $65 million to build the National Cathedral, yet not a single cent has come from the Federal Government. Every dollar to build, and now run and repair, the Cathedral comes from private funding and resources.

The top of the central tower is 676 feet above sea level, and thus it is the highest point in the District of Columbia. The Washington Monument is taller from top to bottom, but, remember, the Cathedral is built up on a mount.

There are well over 200 people interred at the Cathedral including an ex-president, Woodrow Wilson. The only president ever buried in the District of Columbia.

Other notable names include Helen Keller and Matthew Shepard.

inside view national cathedral washington

Martin Luther King Jr gave his last sermon/speech at the pulpit here, just 4 days before he was assassinated.

It is the only building in the whole of North America that has both carillon and peal bells. The largest one weighs 12 tons.


Religious or not, these buildings make up the history and the lives of people around them. They are interesting to visit and too easily skipped on a trip through a town or city.

The National Cathedral in Washington, DC was a place that introduced so many questions and answers to me as well as showing me some interesting quirks. I am so glad I stopped by to take a look.

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