By Jug Varner

One of America's great churches is the Washington National Cathedral. The memorial service for President Dwight D. Eisenhower was held there, as were the inaugural services for Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush. President Woodrow Wilson, Admiral George Dewey and Helen Keller are entombed there. The Reverend Martin Luther King delivered his last sermon there.

President George Washington's idea for a “great church of national purpose” was included in Pierre L'Enfant's 1791 Plans for the City of Washington. In 1883, Congress granted a charter to the Protestant Episcopal Cathedral Foundation of the District of Columbia for this purpose, but no federal or public funds were ever authorized.

In 1886, a group of prominent Episcopalians bought land with an imposing view of the city in a rural area then known as Mount St. Alban Hill — now Massachusetts at Wisconsin Avenues.

President Theodore Roosevelt officiated in the September 29, 1907 laying of the cornerstone — brought there from a field near Bethlehem. Exactly 83 years later, on September 29, 1990, President George Bush officiated in the ceremony that symbolically completed the structure when a giant crane placed an 1,080 pound final stone atop a pinnacle. Every president in between has visited or worshiped at the cathedral.

Excavation began in 1909 and construction progressed through a series of starts and stops for WWI, WWII and again from 1977-80 because of a shortage of funds. Its cost has been supported totally by private donations.

Built in the traditional European stone-on-stone method, the English Gothic cathedral is not supported by structural steel. Its countless Indiana Limestone blocks are set one on the other, bound with mortar and held in place by their own mass and the force the flying buttresses against the stone walls and the downward thrust of the vaulting stones.

Hundreds of stonecutters worked on the cathedral throughout its long period of construction. Some of these gifted artisans spent their working lives there. Among the stone ornaments they carved are 320 angels playing harps, flutes, guitars and other instruments and more than 100 gargoyles representing a variety of unusual creatures — some traditional and others whimsically created to represent actual persons.

The structure contains 83,012 square feet, weighs about 300 million pounds and is approximately 29 stories high. Shaped like a cross, it is 514 feet long and 289 feet at its widest point and stands on 57 acres. It is the sixth largest cathedral in the world and second largest in the nation after St. John's Cathedral in New York City.

Its 200 stained glass windows represent a variety of biblical and national events, demonstrating the dual purpose of the cathedral. One modern-day depiction is the Apollo lunar landing, with a real moon rock embedded in the glass.

Today, the cathedral holds three daily and five Sunday services, including some for denominations other than Episcopalians. More than 600,000 visitors each year tour this awe inspiring cathedral or attend its secular concerts, festivals, community events and services.