This is an architecturally dramatic monument to Christianity, past presidents and current events, as well as an engaging center for Medieval crafts and ways.
What is it about this particular building that makes it fascinating to children, adults, non-Christians and the devout? While many cathedrals throughout the world offer more history (Chartres, Santa Sofia, St. Peter’s), perhaps no other functioning house of worship represents America so well. In 1990, after 83 years of laying stone upon stone, secular America unveiled a national – an American – place of worship, where our leaders and citizens join together in times of sorrow, joy and need. And what a place it is.
Like other cathedrals of its size, this massive limestone edifice is initially and intentionally overwhelming. Anyone who’s been on that whirlwind tour of European grand capitals will instantly feel at home and recall the similarities to many Gothic cathedrals: vaulted ceilings, rose windows, flying buttresses, slanted sunlight through stain glass. But this is America’s cathedral, as you and your kids will quickly realize as soon as you step inside.
Our 9- and 10-year-olds seem to overlook the “overwhelming” and focus on the minutiae. They adore the 112 gargoyles and 400 grotesques carved on site in the shape of snakes, monsters, rabbits (even one of Darth Vader) that line the cathedral’s rooftop. We make a game out of who can be first to spot the moon rock, donated by the Apollo 11 astronauts, embedded in the stained glass Space Window.
The Cathedral is a living American history lesson. Woodrow Wilson, Helen Keller and Admiral James Dewey are among the 200 plus interred here. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached his last Sunday sermon in 1968 from the Cathedral’s Canterbury Pulpit – and five days later, the Cathedral was the site of his memorial service. It is here that our nation’s leaders mourned the loss of life and innocence after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. During these times of national import, or simply when the choir is singing, American life in all its glory and pain breathes in this place of stone and glass.
Simple fun abounds, as well. The Pilgrim Observation Gallery offers a wonderful view of our capitol city and many of the gargoyles and grotesques. The 59-acre grounds include a fabulous garden that is great for Hide ‘n’ Seek, an herb garden, a garden shop and a greenhouse. Special family programs are available on scheduled Saturdays. Our Madeleine loved the Medieval Workshop where she labored over on an anvil and carved a piece of limestone. She still displays by her bedside the clay gargoyle souvenir she made.
Does going to church elicit groans from the youngsters? Not here.
The cathedral is open seven days a week; hours vary by season and day. Suggested donations are nominal. See the National Cathedral website for more detailed information on hours and special family programs.
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