Entries for 'Washington National Cathedral'


In 2009, Washington National Cathedral completed the carving and installation of three limestone statues located above the sedilia[1].  The statues depict three people who were chosen for this honor because of the extraordinary manner in which their lives personified Christian virtues.  The three are John Donne, a 17th-century English poet and cleric in the Church of England; George Herbert, who also was a 17th-century English poet, orator and Anglican priest; and Howard Thurman, a 20th-century African-American author, philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader.

The statues were designed by Chas Fagan, a gifted American sculptor, who not only renders his subjects in incredibly realistic fashion, but also incorporates thoughtful symbolism into his designs that captures some compelling aspects of the person’s life.

For example, Mr. Fagan depicted Howard Thurman in his preaching robes to convey his commanding presence as a preacher and orator.  Dr. Thurman is standing, leaning forward in earnest on the balls of his feet toward the congregation, as though conveying an urgent message of great importance.  In researching the life of Dr. Thurman, Mr. Fagan learned that a mighty oak tree was an important symbol to Dr. Thurman, a manifestation of God’s strong and enduring presence over the course of his life.  Thus, Mr. Fagan designed the lower portion of Dr. Thurman’s robes to appear like the base of an oak tree, with its muscular roots extending deep into the earth below.

When the time arrived to consecrate the statues, the National Cathedral was fortunate that a number of Dr. Thurman’s family and friends were able to attend and take part in the service.  However, the stone brackets on which the statues permanently sit are positioned more than ten feet above the sanctuary floor.  Hence, people are unable to fully see and appreciate some of the statues’ finer details.  After the consecration, since the family was unable to see and enjoy the fine details of the statue, I invited them to my office for a face-to-face encounter with the full-size plaster model that guided the carving of the stone statue.  Immediately upon seeing the plaster model, the family reacted as if Dr. Thurman had returned from the dead for a visit!  Joy beamed from their faces as they approached the piece and looked closely into his eyes.  They gently stroked his head and patted his back.  They posed for multiple photos and lingered to reminisce over fond memories of Dr. Thurman.  There seemed to be a reluctance to leave, as if doing so would break the sacredness of the moment.  Truly, it was a moving family reunion of sorts.

As Cathedral Conservator, I was fortunate to participate in each distinct phase of this artistic project—from conceptualization, to design, fabrication, installation and ultimately, appreciation.  What I observed is that inherent in the process of any “successful” artistic project (and by “successful,” I mean that the final work of art serves to enrich and inspire the recipient—not necessarily all recipients, but a significant number) is the mysterious transference of spiritual enthusiasm from subject matter through the artist to the recipient, with each participant in this process having a significant role to play.

First of all, the subject matter, be it one or more individuals or a specific event, must have a compelling story to tell—a story that transformed the world in a positive fashion at a historic place in time, while also having the capacity to continue doing so as long as the story is conveyed in an effective manner.

The artist then must discern the essential characteristics of the subject matter and devise an artistic expression that conveys the characteristics to the recipient with clarity, strength and inspiration.  In theological terms, the artist conceives a method to incarnate the passions of the subject matter and through creative skill, make them tangible to others observing the work in the present moment.

Finally, the recipient must be a willing participant in the process and not simply a passive consumer.  He or she must exert an effort to understand the subject matter and appreciate the work of art to enjoy the benefits.  And the benefits can be enormous!

Imagine transcending the limits of time and space to experience life in an earlier age, then to realize the similarities we share in the present age with those in the past.  Historic figures come to life; the passions that inspired them can come alive in us, enriching not only our personal existence, but the manner in which we continue to live and interact with others.  Truly, good art is more than simply an inanimate object.  It has the power and potential to be a transformative, life-giving experience.


[1] Sedilia is the traditional name for a grouping of three seats built into the thickness of the south wall of the sanctuary, adjacent to the high altar.  The seats are intended for the clergy who are leading worship.

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Upon joining Washington National Cathedral in 2005, I assumed responsibility for the Cathedral’s rare book collection.  The collection consisted of over nine thousand volumes on religious subject matter, as well as secular.  Many books predate 1750, including a number of incunabula, with several quite valuable editions and a few that are priceless.  The collection came into existence during the Cathedral’s first century as donors offered their personal collections of books, visiting dignitaries presented them as gifts, and specific acquisitions were made by the Cathedral Library while it existed.

However during the 1970s, the Cathedral Library formally was closed and its librarian released.  Soon thereafter, many items were sold or donated to other institutions.  Yet due to donor restrictions, a portion of the rare book collection remained in storage at the Cathedral.  Over the ensuing years, volunteers attempted to manage the collection with limited, consistent success.  By the time I assumed responsibility, an accurate inventory of the entire collection did not exist; background information on each item, including donor records, was not readily accessible; the location of certain specific items could not be confirmed; the quality of security was questionable; and the books were deteriorating due to poor environmental conditions.

Immediately, I petitioned Governance for the necessary funds to bring the rare book collection under control and establish a strategic plan for proper stewardship, and was granted preliminary support to begin.

First, we hired a research library consultant to inventory the collection on the shelves and, working with an assistant, confirm that list with an existing written inventory, resolving inconsistencies and entering the information into an electronic database.  The consultant then was to collect all background information on each item, including all donor agreements, and enter this information into the database as well.  This effort required research in numerous files located in various departments, reviewing committee meeting minutes and Cathedral periodicals, along with interviewing a number of staff and volunteers who participated in the life of collection at some time.

As the donor agreements were collected and reviewed, it became obvious the Cathedral had not used a consistent gift vehicle over the years in receiving donations, so the terms varied widely.  We then hired a lawyer specializing in non-profit donations to review the agreements and make recommendations on their proper interpretation.  This information also went into the database.

As the consultant inventoried the collection, she was directed to review the condition of each book and note the general degree of conservation required.  We enlisted the help of professional volunteers to lend their expertise and provide immediate attention to the most pressing deterioration problems.  They also provided estimates for the next level of conservation treatment.  Working with a small amount of funds, we made minor improvements to the existing mechanical equipment to provide more stable levels of temperature and humidity.  Also, tighter security controls were installed.

In the final report, I directed the consultant to analyze the content, distribution and associated value of the collection’s subject matter to help Governance better understand the breadth and specifics of the collection in order to make informed decisions.  Also, we made recommendations for next steps in the responsible care for the collection.  In the end, the entire collection was verified, an inventory and all associated information was consolidated in one location on an accessible electronic database and confirmed, and the environmental conditions improved.

For the first time in over 40 years, the Cathedral regained control of its rare book collection, so it now can be better stewards of the collection’s perpetual care and honor the trust bestowed upon the Cathedral by donors in the past.

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In 1907, the first stone was laid in the construction of Washington National Cathedral and in 1990; the last stone was set in place.  As I began work at the Cathedral in 2005, I soon learned that over the course of its nearly one-hundred years of existence, a comprehensive survey of the building fabric had never been made.  Understandably, for the first eighty-three years, most of the attention was devoted to completing construction of the Cathedral, not preserving its fabric.  Yet with construction now complete, many in Cathedral governance felt it was time to turn its attention away from the building and devote its resources in other directions.  As a result, the prevailing attitude toward preservation was one of reaction, rather than pro-action.  In other words, wait for something to break and then fix it.

I immediately set to work reversing this attitude by raising the awareness of Governance to its responsibility of being good stewards of the historic landmark it had inherited, by teaching that a policy of deferred maintenance is more costly than preventative maintenance, and encouraging them to be more fiscally responsible by creating a prioritized list of preservation capital projects, with associated costs, for the next five, ten and fifteen years.  With this specific information in hand, a more responsible strategic budget could be established and the necessary funds set in place for any forthcoming major projects.  Finally after pressing the issue for two years, Governance was convinced to release the necessary funds allowing me to proceed with this important study.

Fortunately, the Cathedral maintained good records of its construction history, through drawings, specifications, correspondence, photographs and annual maintenance logs.  However, the information is not centralized nor easily accessible, which means it is used rarely.  Working with a historic architectural consultant, we sifted through all of the information and, after interviewing a number of people who participated in the construction and/or ongoing maintenance of the building, assembled an accurate and comprehensive history of construction in both written and graphic form.

The team then inspected the entire Cathedral, assessing the condition of all materials, assemblies and systems, noting any deterioration, failures and potential failures.  A number of specialists, including stone, stained-glass, metal and wood conservators, and roof and moisture protection specialists participated and provided recommendations.  Detailed technical analysis was made of selected materials and practices including mortar, stone repair, sealant use, waterproofing membranes, and lead roofing.  After a year, a comprehensive conditions report was assembled indicating every aspect of the building fabric: material descriptions, maintenance history, present condition, level of attention required and recommendations going forward.

Once the data was assembled, I then prioritized the items based on level of urgency and worked with the consultants to attach an estimated budget to each item.  I also evaluated the project list based on projected annual budgets for the next five years and current maintenance staff size and skill sets.  In the end, I assembled the information into distinct packets for specific audiences in both print and digital forms.  Governance received a summary of the conditions report, the prioritized project list and associated budget projections, all in a language that was comprehendible and useful for strategic planning and budgeting.

For those concerned with more technical aspects of the survey and its applications, they received the detailed conditions report, the prioritized project list and associated budget projections, which provided specific background and application information in an accessible form.

For the first time in Cathedral history, both Governance and Maintenance had the technical and budgetary information it needed to adopt a policy of pro-active preservation of the Cathedral.

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In 2007, Washington National Cathedral held a year-long centennial celebration of its first stone being laid.  That first stone is named the Foundation Stone and it consists of a large slab of American granite with a smaller stone from Bethlehem, in the Holy Land, imbedded in its surface.  In addition to several inscriptions on its surface, the Foundation Stone provides structural support for the altar and reredos in Bethlehem Chapel, which in turn supports the Jerusalem Altar on the Cathedral’s main level.  In 1907, tens of thousands of people attended the service when the Foundation Stone was set, including President Theodore Roosevelt and other honored dignitaries.  However, today no one can see the Foundation Stone because it is encased within the surrounding foundation walls of the Cathedral’s subcrypt.


With such attention lavished on the Foundation Stone in 1907, it seems odd to make it inaccessible for future generations to appreciate.  Since the Cathedral planned to celebrate the centennial of the Stone’s creation, I thought it appropriate and necessary to research the Stone’s history, identify the people involved in its development, learn the reasons behind its design, the meaning of its symbolism and celebrated installation, and discover the explanation for its inaccessibility, so that others might find a deeper appreciation of its significance.               


My research took me to a number of primary sources: the Cathedral’s construction document archives, the diary of the Bishop of Washington at the time, The Foundation Stone Book that documents the installation services, an array of historic photos and other newspapers and periodicals from the early twentieth century.  Secondary sources included: Cathedral Age, a Cathedral-produced periodical with references to the Foundation Stone’s fiftieth anniversary, numerous books on the history of the Cathedral’s construction by various authors, and other Cathedral-related publications.

Based on the historical information gathered from these sources, I wrote a paper entitled, “The Foundation Stone: Creating Sacred Space at Washington National Cathedral,” and presented it at “Building Spiritual Washington," the Seventh Biennial Symposium of the Latrobe Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians in Washington, DC.  To support my text, I provided numerous illustrations in a PowerPoint presentation.  Following that event, I reshaped the text to become a chapter entitled, “Hidden Eternity: Marking A Sacred Space,” contained within Living Stones: Washington National Cathedral at 100, a book published by the Cathedral during the centennial year.  I further condensed the paper into training materials for docents to use with visitors coming to the Cathedral during the year. Throughout the course of the centennial year, I shared my historical research and PowerPoint presentation to numerous gatherings of special tour groups, Governance and visiting dignitaries.  Finally, the Cathedral made a video of me explaining the history of the Foundation Stone and offering its story as a meditation to viewers on the Cathedral’s website.

The Foundation Stone, a seemingly simple, yet incredibly symbolic element in the life of Cathedral, provides insights on the religious beliefs and practices of the early builders of the National Cathedral.  The variable forms of sharing this historic information helped many people in the present day better understand their forebears of more than a hundred years ago.

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