It’s an essential stop for those of us who visit presidential gravesites -Woodrow Wilson is entombed therein – and is becoming an essential stop for the departing presidents themselves. Presidents Reagan and Ford both had funeral services here, and that tradition is likely to continue going forward.
That’s what the Cathedral was built for, in fact – Pierre L’Enfant put in his plans for the Federal City room for “a great church for national purposes.” True, construction didn’t get going until 1907, but then building a cathedral this size isn’t done in an afternoon. (Rumors that a worker yelled out “L’Enfant, we are here!” at the groundbreaking ceremony cannot be confirmed.) The Cathedral was officially complete in 1990.
President Wilson is in the main hall, along with some immense and amazing stained glass windows, statues of Washington and Lincoln, and real live church services. It feels more than a little weird to be stumbling around gawking at the Space Window (a stained glass piece with a sliver of moon rock at its center) while the congregation is worshiping and giving thanks and praise and such, but they’re generally unfazed by the tourists, who are asked only to be respectful and not chatter loudly or take a lot of photos.
The real fun starts outside, though, with the gargoyles. Each one is unique and each one has a story behind its design and installation. Some were thank you gifts to individuals who donated money during Cathedral construction; they represent the donors’ professions, or children, or home state (one gargoyle holds the St. Louis Arch over its head because the donor was from Missouri. Or maybe it was Missouri itself that made the donation? Either way, you get the idea). Others show a great sense of humor – one of the gargoyles is shaped like a camera, and the guide on our Gargoyle Tour told us that particular gargoyle points toward the former location of the Soviet Embassy. (The guide added that on at least one occasion, several highly Soviet-looking fellers were spotted outside the Cathedral, pointing up at this gargoyle and clearly trying to determine whether it was an actual camera or not.)
And then there’s Vader. Installed in the 80’s after a “design the gargoyle contest” entrant pointed out that gargoyles are supposed to be evil and scary and that the Dark Lord of the Sith fit those conditions well, the Vader gargoyle is the cathedral’s big tourist draw, despite being very difficult to see and despite not technically being a gargoyle (no drainage system, you see). Vader is on the back side (the Dark Side, har) of the West tower; you’ll need a strong pair of binoculars to see him, cause he’s way the heck up there. I found him with the Force, and with the zoom lens on my camera.
The Cathedral was, aside from the Washington Monument, the most high-profile DC spot affected by the earthquake of 2011. Repair work is ongoing but (surprise) slow and expensive – we’re talking tens of millions of dollars. I guess that’s why I did most of my tourist shopping in their gift shop, which is temporarily in the basement crypt (the outbuilding that usually serves as the gift shop had a crane fall on it – ouch). You’ll find religious items, gargoyle-themed souvenirs, books of all kinds, even fudge, on shelves just below the final resting places of Cabinet secretaries and war heroes.