Washington National Cathedral (Dennis Aubrey)


The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, or the Washington National Cathedral, is a cathedral of the Episcopal Church located in Washington, D.C. Like its Gothic fore-bearers, the Cathedral took decades to complete, from 1907 to 1990. Unlike its predecessors, however, there is a great deal of documentation on the construction of the building.

The cathedral as built was originally designed by the English architect George Frederick Bodley. After Bodley’s death in 1907, his pupil and partner Henry Vaughan took over the project. Vaughan died in 1917 and Philip Hubert Frohman became the chief architect. He added the carillon section of the tower and enlarged the west façade. The plans were completed by the time that Froman died in 1972 and the Cathedral was finished to those plans.

There were, however, earlier alternative designs for the cathedral. Ernest Flagg was selected to provide a both a Gothic and Renaissance design, which were to be evaluated and the final design selected by an elite committee. We got a copy of this contemporary newspaper account stating that Flagg’s Renaissance design had been accepted and which subsequently caused a furor. When asked to comment on the controversy, Flagg stated, “It really made no difference to me which design they accepted, though I personally prefer the Renaissance school. It seems to me foolish to copy the Gothic style of the old cathedrals when the highest development of architectural art in Europe lies in the French Renaissance.”

Washington National Cathedral - unbuilt Renaissance design by Ernest Flagg (From the archives of the Washington National Cathedral)

Subsequently, the new architect was selected and the present Gothic structure built. Whether this had to do with the Renaissance-style design Flagg submitted or his reputedly obnoxious personality, he lost the commission.

The cathedral as built is a fine neo-Gothic structure constructed of Indiana limestone. It was raining last week when we were at the Cathedral, so we didn’t get a chance to shoot the exterior, but here is a selection of interior shots.

Nave and font, Washington National Cathedral (Photo by PJ McKey)

Our schedule precluded an extensive session at the Cathedral, but the staff allowed us to use tripods inside the church. We hope to return later this spring to do a full session.

North side aisle, Washington National Cathedral (Photo by PJ McKey)

All of PJ’s shots here were done with the Canon TS-E 24mm f/3.5L lens while mine were done with the Canon TS-E 17mm f/4 L lens. The tilt-shift lens is invaluable in shooting large structures like this and these are our workhorses.

Nave from side aisle, Washington National Cathedral (Photo by PJ McKey)

South outer side aisle, Washington National Cathedral (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

Southwest entry, Washington National Cathedral (Photo by Dennis Aubrey)

It is interesting to see how much work is being done to maintain the Cathedral, despite its recent construction. This document, “Geomechanics of Large Stone Structures: A Case History from the Washington National Cathedral”, gives a summary of the geotechnical work being done to support the structure. Imagine how difficult it would have been in the Middle Ages to address these issues of subsidence.

10 responses to “Washington National Cathedral (Dennis Aubrey)

    • We were in the same church, Ann. What’s amazing to me is that PJ didn’t even bracket. I took six or eight shots, each bracketed carefully, like normally. PJ got a base exposure and zoomed through the church and got about fifteen shots. Once again, the hunter/gatherer metaphor was demonstrated.

    • Merci, JP. The nave vault is covered with netting to protect against falling masonry (the August earthquake), which made the church darker than normal, but it still is a wonderful cathedral. Can’t wait to get back and do it justice.

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