Since I moved to Washington, DC about a year ago, my friend Sarah and I have been getting together for lunch once a month. We’re always trying to think of interesting cuisines and restaurants to try. I keep a file in my desk labeled “Travel” and save interesting articles from magazines or newspapers (from when I still read the news in paper form) for future reference. I recently found an article from TeaTime Magazine (yes, there is such a thing) about places in and around DC to have afternoon tea. I had completely forgotten that I stashed it away after finding out I would be moving to DC.
The suggestion that most intrigued me was a tour and tea at the National Cathedral. It’s only offered on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and you have to book in advance because they only allow up to 35 people for each day. We booked in August for a date in late October, and last Wednesday was that date.
Our tour group consisted entirely of women, most of whom appeared to fit into the 65+ age demographic. But there were a handful of younger women, like us. The tour often begins just outside the front doors, but it was cold and rainy that day, so we stayed inside. The doors are notable for being sculpted in the round, unlike most doors, which are sculpted on one side and flat on the backside.
Our guide was very knowledgable and shared a great deal of interesting facts with us about the Cathedral. She had a job of it too, because the Westminster Boys’ Choir was in town (from Westminster Abbey in London) to perform at the Cathedral that evening, and the organist was practicing throughout most of our tour. Our beleaguered guide tried to speak over the organ when she could, but there were moments when she just had to give up and wait for a particularly loud performance to finish.
I was astonished to learn that the Cathedral was only completed in 1990! Construction began in 1907, and the building has been in use in some form since 1912 when the Chapel was finished, but the completion date is surprisingly recent. Unfortunately the Cathedral is currently undergoing a major restoration necessitated by the 2011 DC earthquake, which caused $26 million in damage to stonework, mortar, and buttresses.
The National Cathedral is an Episcopalian Church, and it was built in the Gothic style common in Europe from the 12th-15th centuries. Many of Europe’s great cathedrals, including Notre Dame de Paris, Reims Cathedral, Durham Cathedral in England, and the Duomo di Milano, were built during the Gothic period. Hallmarks of Gothic architecture include pointed arches, ribbed vaults, and flying buttresses.
There is no reinforced steel or poured concrete in the National Cathedral: as our guide mentioned at least three times, it’s “stone, on stone, on stone.” Indiana limestone, to be specific. I’ve been inside my fair share of Europe’s Gothic cathedrals, and ours feels every bit as massive and majestic as theirs.
One way in which the National Cathedral differs significantly from cathedrals in Europe is in the subject matter depicted in its stained glass. Although the expected religious scenes are present, there are a number of secular subjects depicted as well. The “space” window is one of the more famous secular scenes, celebrating the U.S. space program and the Apollo 11 mission, in particular.
The Cathedral was built east-to-west, like the rising sun. During sunset, the sun shines through the enormous stained glass rose window in the west façade of the building. The window has 10,500 pieces of glass. This type of window is called a “rose window” because the rose is the symbol of Mary and of light.
As long as the Washington Monument is tall, the Cathedral is approximately 1/10 of a mile in length, and is the 10th largest cathedral in the world. It is the seat of a bishop, which is why its cross emblem is often depicted in purple. The Cathedral uses the Jerusalem Cross, rather than the more common Christian cross.
A Jerusalem Cross is a Greek Orthodox cross, with all four arms of the cross being the same length, and four smaller Greek crosses appearing in each quadrant formed by the arms of the larger cross. The Bishop’s Chair at the Cathedral is made from stone that originated at Glastonbury Abbey in England, which was built circa 1 A.D.
All of the kneelers in the Cathedral are covered in embroidered cloths, and all of the needlework was done by volunteers–over 1000 of them. A War Memorial Chapel was built after World War II, and the kneeler covers were embroidered by the women of England as thanks for our help during World War II. The Queen Mother (the current Queen Elizabeth’s mother) embroidered one that was on display during our visit.
Also of note about the Cathedral is that President Woodrow Wilson is buried there. He is the only U.S. president to be buried in Washington, DC.
He was Presbyterian, not Episcopalian, but he received the honor of being buried there because of his humanitarian work. His tomb was originally downstairs, but was moved in 1956 to its current location on the main floor.
Our tour lasted just over an hour, and then it was time for tea! Tea is served in St. Paul’s Room at the top of the South Tower. The ceiling is low and arched, but the views are spectacular. Small window-side tables line the perimeter, and larger tables occupy the center space. Because Sarah and I were a party of two, we were seated at one of the tables with a view.
The tea presentation was very nice and in line with what I expected visually. However, I was not overly impressed with the actual meal. For starters, there was no choice of tea. This is Afternoon Tea 101! There’s always a choice of tea. The tea they served was good–Sarah and I decided it was probably some sort of afternoon blend of black tea–but choice is important.
I also have to deduct points for the skimpiness of their sandwiches and desserts. We each had four finger sandwiches: egg salad, chicken salad, cucumber (with NO salmon!), and an asparagus spear wrapped in some sort of bread. The sandwiches were delicious, but tiny, even by afternoon tea standards. There was only one mini scone for each of us, with clotted cream and jam, of course. And then two petit-fours apiece: a mini eclair and pumpkin pie. Again, delicious, but not the feast I expect when I go to afternoon tea. Never in my life have I left afternoon tea still hungry…until now.
All in all, the tour was very interesting, and the opportunity to have tea in the high tower of the Cathedral was enjoyable. At $30 per person (plus another $15 for parking) I’m not convinced it was worth it, but we had fun!