Bishop’s Garden at National Cathedral

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This week we watched on CNN the state funeral of the late 41st president of the United States, George Herbert Walker Bush. Held at Washington National Cathedral, the nearly two-hour service paid tribute with great dignity and respect. This “house of prayer for all people” plays an official role in this country that is similar to that of Westminster Abbey in London, although U. S. government has never designated it thus.

The cathedral’s surrounding grounds comprise fifty-nine acres.

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Frederick Law Olsmsted, Jr., designed the original plan between 1907-1927 during the time of the excavation of the nave of the cathedral. His purpose was to provide a rich tapestry complementing a 14th-century Gothic architecture with plants of the Bible, Christian heritage, and native American plants of historical interest, such as boxwood from Dolly Madison and Thomas Jefferson. But, first, he had to deal with a large mass of dirt.

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Florence Brown Bratenahl, wife of the cathedral dean then, worked with Mr. Olmstead to lay out the entire cathedral close to recall a medieval cloister garden on land that once was the home of George Washington’s U. S. Treasury registrar. Mrs. Bratenahl and Mr. Olsmtead concentrated their efforts on historic stonework among boxwood, holly, ivy, oak, rose, and yew, many from remote Piedmont plantations of Virginia.

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Mr. Olmstead designed the Bishop’s Garden as a private retreat out the back door of the Bishop’s House. Later, Mrs. Bratenahl created a larger public entrance through the Norman Court.

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She meant this garden to be set apart from the rush of the city beyond the walls, its medieval sculpture pieces such as a 9th-century baptismal font . . .

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. . . and incorporated bas-reliefs providing a calming retreat for visitors as well as for the bishop and other clergy.

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Old churchyards in England, planted with roses and ancient yews, helped inspire the Bishop’s Garden design, but in England yews can live a thousand years. These yews in the Bishop’s Garden, however, along with boxwood forming the garden’s bones, began to decline in this decidedly un-English sunny site. Adding cliched “insult to injury” was the infamous “Snowmageddon” in the winter of 2010, dumping tons of snow and damaging the garden. Since then, modern box varieties with more vitality but developed to resemble the classic box have replaced the damaged shrubs and borders.

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Stone paths lead to the Shadow House gazebo in one of the “rooms” of the Bishop’s Garden and an enclosed lawn beyond where one may sit to reflect and pray.

A wood bridge walkway . . .

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. . . leads to a five-acre oak and beech forest on Mount St. Alban, called the Olmstead Woods, home to migratory birds flitting among native wildflowers and shrubbery.

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Washington National Cathedral, officially named the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, is the center of the Episcopal Church in Washington and the nation.

Construction began on September 29, 1907, when the foundation stone was laid in the presence of President Theodore Roosevelt and a crowd of more than 20,000, and ended 83 years later when the “final finial” was placed in the presence of President George H. W. Bush in 1990.

“Without faith, we are stained glass windows in the dark.”

Located at 3101 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W., in Washington, D.C., Washington National Cathedral is available for paid tours when religious services are not scheduled. The gardens and grounds remain open for free during the day. Call (202) 537-6200.


NEXT WEEK: Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, Washington, D.C.








Just short of fifty years of holy matrimony, I am blessed to be a mother of two and grandmother of seven. Much of my writing speaks to the culture and tradition of the Deep South, where I spent the first thirty-five years of my life before relocating to the Pacific Northwest. As a poet and essayist, I’ve published both online and in print media. In mid-February 2019, I launched Roses in the Rain: A Daughter's Story, following a successful couple years of Invitation to the Garden, both on Watch for upcoming installments to the memoir blog every Tuesday. The garden posts follow on Friday/Saturday. I look forward to hearing from you all!

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