Massachusetts and Wisconsin avenues
Tues., Sept. 9
The massive wooden doors creak loudly as I use all of my poor body’s strength to pull them open. Even though it’s a fairly nice September day, a wave of cold, dark air from inside washes over me and I’m kicking myself for not wearing something warmer. Inside a few tourists scattered here and there snap pictures of the same things I am presently marveling at. However, when I look closely, there are people kneeling, eyes closed, some with their heads raised toward the sky, others with tears streaming down their cheeks – they’re praying. To them it’s not a tourist attraction, it’s not the country’s second tallest cathedral and its not the the 215 stained glass windows. They are here to worship at D.C.’s National Cathedral.
It’s Tuesday afternoon and I’ve arrived for my very own special tour. Ms. Louise Lynn, coordinator of the hospitality programs at the National Cathedral, and Ms. Julie Cooke, director of visitor programs and volunteer services, didn’t just answer the questions I had regarding the touring programs through e-mail. Instead, they took time out of their day to give me an in-depth look at one of D.C.’s greatest treasures. I know it sounds like the beginning of a Martha Stewart special, but you don’t know what you’re missing when all you do is take a far-off glance at the looming towers from campus at night.
As I’m waiting, I make my way down the massive main aisle and can’t help but notice the sparkling reflection of the storytelling stained glass windows in the spotless and shining tiled floor. Even in flip-flops I can hear my footsteps echoing throughout the tremendous sanctuary. A large group of Russian tourists also staring at the reflections are proof that the Cathedral is not just a local attraction. Before I get too entranced by the beauty of the architecture, Ms. Lynn arrives and whisks me away to the tower, where we will have our very own tea party.
When the elevator shudders to a stop and the doors slide open, my anticipation increases. The tea tables are scattered throughout the small observation room with floral tablecloths adorning each one. It is as if I have stepped into a little girl’s fantasy of make-believe tea parties. But the tea and treats are tangible and, most importantly, the view is mind-blowing. After I’ve finished oohing and ahhhing the view, picking out the few landmarks I recongize, we sit down – like perfect ladies I might add – to tea.
I have to admit that I was not all that thrilled to find that the tea being served was not the delicious and cool iced tea that I, as a Southern gal from the glorious state of North Carolina, am accustomed to. After all, we are practically the iced tea capital of Dixie, at least in my mind. (We have to be able to claim something other than Jesse Helms and Libby Dole). However, I can say that I was pleasantly surprised. The spicy aroma of the Earl Grey being poured from the cream-colored porcelain teapot was spellbinding. I do have one bit of advice for all of y’all southern folk, though – you don’t gulp it down like a thirsty dog as we are accustomed to with our iced tea, and be sure to take careful, ladylike sips. Otherwise the delicate tea treats will not taste nearly as delicious with a burnt tongue. Not that I’m speaking from personal experience, of course.
Maybe it was the fact that I’ve been surviving on cereal and microwave popcorn since school started, but the delicate arrangement of our tea-time treats were mouth-watering. It was hard to choose from the arrangement of shortbread cookies, cucumber sandwiches, scones, cream puffs and jam treats on the silver three-tier tray. I’m ashamed to say I had some of each.
After I had finished my buffet of pastries and finger sandwiches, I was handed off to Ms. Cooke who led me on a private behind-the-scenes tour of the makings and mysteries of the Cathedral. I was even lucky enough to walk through one of the gutters. Before you picture me wading through dead leaves and other surprises the rain leaves behind, the gutters are as wide as city sidewalks, have walls that are chest-high and are not, by any means, fashioned out of aluminum. They also can’t be used to shimmy down (or up if you’re stupid) the side of your house in the middle of the night.
These gutters have immense gargoyles and grotesques lining them. Now, I’m sure that by this time you’re wondering “What in the world is a grotesque?” A gargoyle is part of the gutter system, not a highly glorified lawn ornament, draining and dumping the rainwater through its mouth if the gutter starts to overflow. A grotesque, while it looks exactly like a gargoyle, contributes to the drainage by letting the water drip off of it.
Once I was done braving the heights, (keep in mind that the second story of the Pentagon City mall is pushing it for me), Ms. Cooke led me through the bottom of the bell tower, where I’m disappointed to say I did not find Quasimodo, Esmerelda or any of the rest of the Notre Dame gang that Victor Hugo and Disney fashioned in my head. I know, it’s hard to believe. But if you want to look for the Notre Dame crew for yourself, stop by on Sept. 27 for the Cathedral’s annual open house, one of the only times during the year visitors can climb the central bell tower. It’s a whopper of a climb – 300 or so feet – or as my roommate likes to put it “thirty stories closer to God.”
Even though my adventure here has ended, I will definitely journey my way back to conquer the tower, or at least to make it past the second flight.
Tour information, volunteer opportunities and directions to the National Cathedral can be found at www.cathedral.org.
This article appeared in the September 15, 2003 issue of the Hatchet.