National Cathedral to charge admission on a trial basis in 2014

By Lynette Wilson
Posted Nov 26, 2013
Washington National Cathedral will begin charging admission on Jan. 1 in an effort to raise an estimated $300,000 in additional annual revenue. Photo: Craig Stapert

Washington National Cathedral will begin charging admission on Jan. 1 in an effort to raise an estimated $300,000 in additional annual revenue. Photo: Craig Stapert

[Episcopal News Service] Seeking to raise an estimated $300,000 in additional annual revenue, Washington National Cathedral on Jan. 1 will launch a six-month trial of charging tourists to visit its historic building.

Though charging admission is a new policy, the cathedral has charged for specialty and group tours, said Richard Weinberg, the cathedral’s director of communications in a Nov. 26 phone call with ENS.

“The change that’s coming effective Jan. 1 is that anyone coming for sightseeing, self-guided or a docent-led highlights tour, will be charged,” he said.

Adult visitors will be charged $10, and senior citizens, children, students, veterans and members of the military will be charged $6, said David J. Kautter, chair of the Cathedral Chapter, in a Nov. 25 statement to members, donors and volunteers. The cathedral will remain open to those visiting for prayer, worship and pastoral care, and it will offer free admission on Sundays, he said.

“The Cathedral Chapter [governing board] and leadership are sensitive to the cathedral’s foremost identity as a house of prayer and as a living faith community in the Episcopal tradition,” Kautter said. “Despite the wonder of the art and architecture here, the cathedral is not a museum.”

“Volunteers, members of the cathedral’s congregation and members of the National Cathedral Association will be admitted without charge,” he said. “We will be in touch again soon as our policies and procedures for the fixed admission are finalized over the coming months.”

The decision to charge admission was made “reluctantly,” Cathedral Dean Gary Hall told the Associated Press in a Nov. 25 article, noting that cathedrals and churches in Europe charge tourist admission fees.

“All we are charging for is tourism essentially,” Hall said. “We’re not charging for the essential services of the cathedral.”

In 2012, 375,000 people, in addition to parish members and other worshipers, visited the cathedral, up from 275,000 in 2011, when in August of that year the cathedral suffered $26 million worth of damages from a rare 5.8-magnitude earthquake and remained closed for more than 60 days. The cathedral since has raised $10 million in funds toward restoration.

Though it is less common to charge admission to cathedrals in churches in the United States than in Europe, at least two domestic Episcopal cathedrals and one church charge for tours.

The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York does not charge admission to enter the cathedral, but it does charge up to $15 for its Highlights, Vertical and Spotlight tours. Trinity Church in Boston, charges $7 for its guided and self-guided tours. Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, California, charges $25 for its grand tour.

Washington National Cathedral, which is the seat of both the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church and the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, often is referred to as the “spiritual home” of the nation. It is located on Wisconsin Avenue, about five miles northwest of the Capitol Building, which sits at the eastern head of the National Mall and Memorial Parks.

In 2012, Washington, D.C. hosted a record 18.9 million tourists, with most (16.9 million) coming from inside the United States, according to Destination DC, the city’s official bureau of tourism.

Whereas the Capitol Building and other popular, federal government-sponsored destinations and cultural institutions (including the National Gallery; the Smithsonian; the Lincoln, Jefferson and Vietnam Veterans memorials; the Washington Monument; and Arlington National Cemetery) offer free admission, the cathedral is self-supporting and operates on a $13.3 million annual budget.

This financial independence, Kautter noted, “increases the cathedral’s freedom to speak freely in the public square and to convene people of all faiths. It also requires us to seek other means of ensuring our sustainability.”

After breaking even in 2010, the cathedral operated with a $400,000 surplus in both 2011 and 2012. This year, the cathedral operated at a $1.6 million deficit as a result of a shortfall in annual fundraising, said Weinberg.

“It is worth noting the cathedral relies on philanthropy to provide 65 to 70 percent of its annual operating revenues,” he said via a Nov. 26 e-mail in response to questions from ENS. “Operating expenses for fiscal year 2013 were in line with our plan for the year.”

In its vision statement, the cathedral states that it “will be a catalyst for spiritual harmony in our nation, renewal in the churches, reconciliation among faiths, and compassion in our world.” Besides offering approximately 2,200 worship services annually, the cathedral strives to accomplish that vision by offering a wide assortment of concerts and forums, some free, some at modest prices, Weinberg said.

The cathedral was designated a “national treasure” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2012. In August of that year, it received a $5 million Lily Endowment grant to jumpstart the post-earthquake restoration. In May 2013, the cathedral won first place in a Partners in Preservation competition, receiving a $100,000 grant toward its restoration.

“We are called to preserve and restore a building that is more than a century old and to offer programs that have a distinctive impact on our city, our nation and the world,” Kautter said. “To support that work, we must implement this carefully developed fixed-admission policy, and we believe it can be understood by all who have the cathedral’s best interests at heart.”

— Lynette Wilson is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service

Comments (40)

  1. James C C Williams says:

    I volunteered at the Cathedral for many years. If you do this I will drop my membership in the National Cathedral Association and you will be removed from my will. This is the last straw in your continual grab for money. Remember the Soper Trust?

  2. Bruce Garner says:

    I don’t think it will be difficult for someone to simply tell whoever is at the door that they wish to pray or pastoral counseling. And while I do not really like the idea of charging visitors, it is an unfortunate aspect of our lives these days. Someone has to pay for the maintenance and sometimes the restoration of our buildings. My parish faced similar issues around providing 24 hour access to the campus. But the damage being done by some folks who didn’t or couldn’t respect the sacredness of the space by virtue of mental illness and/or substance abuse had to be addressed. The gates to the gardens are locked at night. However, the church itself is open from 9am to 4pm each day and we are an urban parish.

    I have to think that if we, as Episcopalians, were more generous with our own personal resources, many ministries would get funded, buildings would get restored and kept open and there would be no need for visitors to pay to see them. But too many of us use our pledges et al as a means of gaining leverage to advance our particular position. We forget that all we have is a gift from God and we are beholding to God for at least 10% to be returned…..and without strings, questions or conditions. Perhaps if we truly understood gratitude we would be more generous.

    The Episcopal Church does not, to my knowledge, provide funding to the National Cathedral for its ongoing operations. I doubt that the Diocese of Washington does either since the actual parish is not the cathedral per se. Maybe we should fund it. Maybe we should also fund The General Seminary as well. General is a creature of the church via General Convention and is the only seminary actually owned by The Episcopal Church, yet receives no funds from the General Convention budget or the church-wide budget.

    We do what we must to keep doors open these days. God has called us to be extraordinarily generous in thanksgiving for the incredible blessings we have received. How many of us even come close to generous, much less extraordinarily generous?

    Bruce Garner, Atlanta

    P.S. – I don’t think being moderated has anything to do with agreement or disagreement with a poster to this blog. It is intended to prevent inappropriate postings that violate the boundaries of decorum.

    1. John Shaw says:

      Concerning moderation: I once operated a web forum for a very specialized type of engineering. The people who used it (about 100 regular users, about 1 post per day) debated some of the fine points and details of the engineering field. However, I had to moderate it because of the large number of “spam” posts such as “see my site at www. fake” (my description, you can guess what the real name might be) or the people that would find some fun in posting a string of obscenities. I am sure it could be much worse here. I am sure that the operators of this site do not like having to spend the time reading post and trashing the spam or obscene ones, but it is a necessity of operating a web site. News papers have had similar problems with letters to the editor.

      1. Mary Frances Schjonberg says:

        Having just moderated 13 comments, six of which were spam, I thank John Shaw for his comment. And I point to ENS’ commenting policy here It outlines our moderation policy.

  3. David Fletcher says:

    My objection is not about charging admission to historic buildings, but since Washington itself is a national monument, my opinion is that the admission policy needs to reflect the National Monuments, such as Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington, WW2, Korea, Vietnam, Capital, Supreme Court, White House (if you have enough sway to get this ticket), and Post Office. The Church isn’t THAT special.

    1. John Shaw says:

      The difference is that the Cathedral is a church and cannot receive any government support, unlike the other monuments and historical sites. The first amendment prohibits any such support.

  4. The Rev'd Donald Lowery says:

    I suspect there will be backlash to this.
    I suspect some will lie about praying and tour for free.
    I think $10.00 is a bit steep. Even the $6.00 will be a bit much for a school group with a bus load of kids. Even more so if those kids come from one of Washington’s impoverished neighborhoods.
    I suspect a lot of folks will just take a cathedral off their list of sites of visit, or will only do the exterior.
    So, all that to say, I think they will collect less than they expect and may live to regret the day they decided to charge. Washington DC is not Europe and there is plenty of really cool free MODERN stuff to do instead of visiting a lovely anachronism, a GOTHICK Cathedral in a contemporary city. I would gussy up the gift shop and try to increase sales, myself. I would do more with online sales as well. There is a gold mine in internet shopping waiting to be tapped especially for Episcopalians looking for tasteful, Episcogifts.
    I disagree with Dr. Fr. White. While my taste in vestments tends towards the traditional, I find the modern vestments at the Cathedral thought provoking and even lovely. As regards High Altars, High Altars should be reserved for High Days. There has been a reformation and we don’t hide altars behinds screens anymore, no matter how lovely.
    Kiddie rides, he suggests? Perhaps it could be billed as EuroDisney America.
    High Cost Tours – Why not a Dan Brown” Lost Symbols” Tour? Seriously, I bet he would come to an inaugural tour, sign books, etc., to help with the restoration. I would consider paying for that and enjoy it too.

  5. Kathleen Moore says:

    “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You … for a $10 fee of course”

  6. Joseph D Herring says:

    I do understand the Cathedral’ s financial agonies. I’m a Fellow of the College of Preachers. I lament the extinction of the College. What we need to be clear about is that this new financial plan makes it official that the Cathedral is a museum. Rev Joseph D Herring

  7. John B. White says:

    With all due respect, the National Cathedral IS an historic site as well as the location of the College of Preachers and the Presiding Bishop; however, given the financial exigency of the Church and the significant damage done to the Cathedral, we can ill-afford to deny the financial challenges of Church and Cathedral. I am sure those managing the site can distinguish between the needy worshipers and the tour buses. Fathers White and Herring, $10 is a modest contribution for most to pay to see the most visible site of the Episcopalian tradition in American and the so-called “national Church.” I would urge our presiding Bishop and the Bishop of Washington to take the lead on insuring repair to this national treasure and site of worship.

  8. David Azzolina says:

    Its common practice in Europe. Perfectly understandable in a building that has sustained $26 million worth of damages.

  9. Surya-Patricia Lane Hood says:

    As an Episcopalian, I understand the financial difficulties that our churches and Cathedrals labor with. That said, the National Cathedral is first and foremost God’s house as an Episcopal Cathedral and its doors are open to all without cost. “Welcome” loses its meaning when we stand in line to pay a fee to enter the Great Doors. The Rev. Dr. Howard W. White said it the way I feel it.

  10. The Rev'd Lawrence A. Britt says:

    This is one of the most unspeakably short-sighted ideas I’ve heard lately. The notion that “A House of Prayer for All People” charges admission is simply scandalous.

    1. That is exactly what I thought as I read this article. I have so many found memories of just wandering into the cathedral and gaping in awe at the splendor. The first time I visited I could never have afforded to pay an entrance fee and yet the cathedral became a significant part of my journey toward God, the Episcopal church, ordination and becoming rector of an historic church with expensive maintenance challenges. . I am so disappointed that the cathedral chapter has decided to cut off a part of the cathedral’s ministry to the world by putting a price on it.

  11. David Krohne says:

    The Cathedral Choir concerts are hardly offered at “modest prices.” The prices they charge are comparable to what one pays at the Kennedy Center and other concert venues in the area. Apparently they are for generating income more than anything else.
    The article mentions trying to raise $300,000. On the local news today it was said they are trying to raise $19 million for structural repairs.

  12. In principle, I find no problem with charging some nominal fee which does a small bit to offset “traffic” costs; however, as someone who has spent decades dealing with very effective annual stewardship and capital funding, I do not understand from the article going from a nice surplus $1.6 deficit in one year. Perhaps the article is lacking in clarity on this issue. However, again, the National Cathedral may have become complacent and devolved since Bp John Walker’s superb work in funding. In general, stewardship has been somewhat spiritualized and generalized into stewardship of nearly everything and has lost its once clear mission to educate and challenge lay and clergy leadership to witness to their giving and challenge their followers to join in their efforts. For those whose history knowledge is limited to the 21st Century, check out the clear and successful witness provided by the Episcopal Church in Venture in Mission, the largest capital funds project in the history of global Christianity and in the mid 1980’s being the highest annual per unit congregational givers among the top 10 Protestant denominations. Of course now, we are not even in the top ten and progressively decline in apparent self satisfaction that we are socially righteous at least in the House of Bishops and Deputies. Please check my assertions before BSing your opinions to the contrary. . .

  13. J. Dye says:

    So, it must be that people who are vacationing in our nation’s capitol have more disposable income than those of us who would be making a special trip to see the Cathedral? I have 3 children, one of whom will be 18 in January, and we are kicking around the idea of going to D.C., from Texas, as an educational trip for the kids before our eldest goes off to college. If I’m doing my math correctly, it would cost us $44 to set foot in the historic Cathedral that is the seat of power for our faith. I understand that we could go there to worship for free, but I had hoped to be able to go there to see the Cathedral as a historic building that is central to being an Episcopalian. I’m torn about being charged to see the place, and it’s yet one more thing we’ll have to work into our very tight budget if we do decide to try and see more than the worship space.

  14. Ruth Ratliff says:

    Charging for tours is fine. Charging for admission is outrageously wrong.

  15. The Rev. E. Clare Nesmith says:

    I would suggest that all who are scandalized by the National Cathedral asking for a donation from tourists, put their money where their mouth is… and give a very generous donation designated for the repairs and restoration of the cathedral. Maybe each parish might think of giving something for our National Cathedral? I plan to ask my parish leadership in the light of this news.

  16. martha knight says:

    Howard, I agree completely.

  17. The Rev. Sidney Breese says:

    I can understand the move, but it is disappointing. When in DC I always make a “pilgrimage ” to the cathedral. I guess I will now have to pay.

  18. The Rev'd. Steven McCarty says:

    David Kautter says that the “Cathedral is not a museum” in the article. Very true; but neither is it being a House of Worship, or House of God, when you are charged a fee to enter. I believe that the National Cathedral should reconsider their plan; this is not good.

  19. Joan C. Browning says:

    Money changing tables at the entrances? How much shall Jesus be charged to enter?

  20. Nevin C Brown says:

    I rarely if ever comment on news articles of any kind, but this news has troubled me deeply. I can understand the fundraising needs and problems faced by the cathedral. Nonetheless, despite all the words framing its decision, this still feels to me like a move toward “pay to pray”. Modern American culture is quickly moving in the direction of attaching a price to everything, regardless of the impact on the growing percentage of our population unable to find the resources to meet basic daily needs. This move on the part of the cathedral is deeply disappointing, particularly to someone like myself who has served as a volunteer at the institution for a long time and has a deep affection for it.

    Interesting that this decision comes at the same time that our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have been reminded by Pope Francis of the spiritual problems of our fascination with money.

  21. The Rev. James Boston says:

    Since going to college 48 years ago up Wisconsin Avenue from the Cathedral, it has been a much loved and often visited place, for both worship and inspiration. I don’t mind charging for tours, with generous exceptions, but am very sad at the idea of charging admission, especially at a price which seems high. I am moved to resume my giving to the Cathedral, and so might many more if an appeal were made on the basis of trying to avoid charging admission.

  22. The Rev. Daniel Prechtel says:

    For perspective: A visit to Canterbury Cathedral costs an adult visitor BP 9.50 or about $15.50 (BP 8.50 seniors/6.50 children under 18) unless attending a worship service there. Being a member of a church in the diocese of Kent and some other exceptions qualify a person for a free pass.

  23. The Rev. Tally Bandy says:

    Having lived in the Washington area for 36 years, I watched The Cathedral being built and went often not just to worship but to take in the marvels of the Gothic Building. It was the last place I went before retiring to North Carolina 20 years ago. I sat in the Great Choir and cried to be leaving this holy place. I’ve been back a few times ~ Advent 1 on one occasion and for The Rt. Rev. David Jones’ consecration in 1995. If you must, charge for a docent’s tour, but $10.00 to come in and sit and soak up all the prayers that have been offered there seems very harsh to me. It makes me very sad.

  24. Craig Clere says:

    It could not have been said better, I’m embarrassed being Episcopalian right now!

  25. The Rev'd Patricia Hanen, Ph.D. says:

    I was ordained to the diaconate in the National Cathedral, and I will never forget the joy it gave me to bring friends and family to worship and visit there. Nearly every member of my family and all of my friends experienced the Cathedral as a blessing and a privilege, a gift the Episcopal church was giving the country, the surrounding region, and the nation’s capital.

    Without a willingness to give gifts that cost us something, “the Episcopal Church welcomes you” is an empty slogan and a pious hope. What a pity.

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