‘Everything is awesome’ as building begins on massive Lego replica of National Cathedral

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Apr 23, 2019

Volunteer Matthew Taylor, a lawyer who attends St. John’s Episcopal Church Lafayette Square across from the White House, checks out the inside of the Lego model of Washington National Cathedral’s Bethlehem Chapel. Taylor said he volunteers at the build site because “it combines my favorite things: Lego bricks and The Episcopal Church.” Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Washington] Eight years after a magnitude 5.8 earthquake toppled parts of Washington National Cathedral as if they were toy blocks, people of all ages are spending $2 a brick to construct the world’s largest Lego cathedral to help pay for the building’s remaining repairs.

When the builders are finished in two or three years’ time, they will have used between 400,000 and 500,000 bricks – every single one of them off the shelf – to build a minivansized scale model over 13 feet long and 8 feet tall that features all the cathedral’s landmark parts, both inside and out, including the rose window, Bethlehem Chapel and the central tower. The completed model will weigh about 1,350 pounds.

“I think it’s really cool and whoever created this idea is really smart,” Claire Babb, 10, of River Edge, New Jersey, said on a recent Saturday afternoon at the “build site,” a repurposed part of the cathedral gift shop.

Bricklaying began March 1 with a blessing of the bricks as some of the cathedral’s choristers sang “Everything Is Awesome,” the theme song to the 2014 Warner Bros. Pictures film “The Lego Movie.” The Very Rev. Randy Hollerith, cathedral dean, and “Teddy Roosevelt” (of the Washington Nationals’ racing presidents mascot team) wielded the same trowel used in 1907 to place the first of the bricks into the Bethlehem Chapel floor.

The real Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United States, laid the building’s foundation stone, which contains rock from a field near Bethlehem, that kicked off 83 years of construction. Then as now, construction began with the Bethlehem Chapel where the stone is embedded below the altar.

Bright Bricks, a United Kingdom-based company, partnered with the cathedral on the project. The company has helped four English cathedrals – Chester, Durham, Exeter and St. Edmundsbury – and one Church of England church – St. Botolph’s – stage similar fundraisers. National Cathedral’s website notes that the Lego Group “does not sponsor, authorize, or endorse this project.”

However, builders and volunteers fully endorse the concept.

Volunteer Matthew Taylor helps Claire Babb, 10, of River Edge, New Jersey, add the 100 bricks bought by her dad to one of the 18 columns in the Washington National Cathedral nave. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Claire, who had just finished helping build one of 18 columns or piers for the cathedral’s nave, said she liked the idea that her contribution is “actually helping a church.” And, of course, she likes Lego bricks.

“I like that when you get the pieces, you think that they’re all scattered, but when you finish it’s a masterpiece of a building or a car or whatever you built,” Claire said, adding that she has built Lego sets with more than 1,000 pieces.

“But this is nothing like that. It’s way bigger and looks harder to make,” she said. “It’s more intricate.”

It’s not just kids who are into the bricks. During an interview interrupted by calls for brick-placing help at the build site, Charles Fulcher, director of the cathedral’s visitor programs, told the story of a couple in their 50s who came one afternoon and bought 100 bricks. “They were so excited to build,” he said. Then they bought another 100 bricks and then 150 more. “Now, that’s not the norm for somebody to come in a spend $700 for bricks, but it shows that it’s not just kids, it’s adults,” he said.

Lego bricks appeal especially to adults because “you can really create anything in your imagination,” Ed Diment, Bright Bricks’ creative director, told ENS from the company’s offices in England. “The more people do it, the more people see, the more they’re inspired by it.”

Cole Swift, 7, puts a pin in Washington National Cathedral’s Builders’ Zone map to show his hometown Mill Valley, California. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Claire said she often reuses her thousands of Lego pieces to “be creative; usually I just imagine something, and then I just take some pieces and try to make it.”

Cole Swift, 7, from Mill Valley, California, does the same thing. “We have a scrap bin of Legos and sometimes we just put weird stuff together,” he said during an interview after adding some bricks to the Lego cathedral.

This Lego masterpiece, however, will remain intact at the cathedral after it is finished.

The hows and whys of a Lego cathedral

The Lego model of Durham Cathedral in England fired Fulcher’s imagination. He visited the church two years ago and set himself on a quest to see if Washington National Cathedral could build its own. Such a project, he thought, could raise money for repair and preservation, and help people develop a personal connection to a building that can seem overwhelming.

The Cathedral Chapter, its governing body, knew that fewer and fewer people were visiting Washington, a reality that usually means even fewer visitors to the cathedral, given its location away from the city’s monuments and museums, according to Fulcher.

A Lego building project – not something many people would expect of such a church – just might call out from atop the tallest hill in the city where the cathedral sits, he said. Chapter members were enthusiastic, he added, but cautious about making the finances work. It takes money to raise money, and an existing cathedral donor “who was happy to invest in this possibility to do something new with their giving and to see something very tangible as a result” stepped up to cover Bright Bricks’ design, the material, expert support, site visits and consultations with Magnus Lauglo, a local AFOL, or Adult Fan of Lego, as some Lego hobbyists are known.

The model is being built with “all completely standard parts” that Lego uses in its current sets, Diment said. “It’s a question of being very creative and working out how to create certain shapes using parts perhaps in ways they weren’t intended for,” he explained.

For instance, Harry Potter wands known as “sprues” are serving as railings in one section. Position the sprues or, for that matter, Lego hot dog pieces, in a correct way and “they can look like an architectural detail,” he said.

Harry Potter wand sprues serve as railings outside Washington National Cathedral’s Bethlehem Chapel. Builders have used Lego droid arms for some of the cames between the plastic stained-glass pieces in the windows. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

There will be Lego gargoyles in the replica of the cathedral known for its 112 hand-carved stone creatures. Most will be symbolic of the originals, as will the sprinkling of some of the cathedral’s 1,200 grotesques. Since there is a Lego Darth Vader, however, the model will incorporate it in its proper place on the outside of the northwest tower.

Scattered amid the Indiana limestone blocks of National Cathedral are bricks or stones from other places, including other cathedrals and even the White House. Fulcher suggested to the Lego builders at Durham Cathedral that the two sites swap bricks in keeping with that tradition. They agreed and Fulcher is inviting the other model churches to join in. “It will be fun to have this as a touch point for talking about our own stones from around the world, and also to help promote sister cathedrals,” he said.

Irving has been helping build the Lego version of Washington National Cathedral’s Bethlehem Chapel. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Bright Bricks designers are tackling the cathedral in sections as they figure out how to build them. One designer recently asked Fulcher to photograph the outermost aisles of the nave because, looking at the documentation he had, “he couldn’t quite wrap his head around” that space. The designers then create instruction books similar to what comes in Lego sets and ship the needed pieces and instructions to the cathedral.

“Eventually, there will be the equivalent of a giant instruction book,” Diment said. Fulcher estimated the book will run to “tens of thousands of pages.” The work-in-progress nature of the design accounts for the current lack of an accurate count of the eventual total number of bricks.

Building is happening in two ways. Visitors to the cathedral can purchase bricks and work with volunteers to add them to the parts of whatever section is under construction. Meanwhile, volunteers also build with bricks purchased online by people who cannot come to the cathedral.

Fulcher said the cathedral is considering additional ways to add to the fundraiser, ranging from corporate support and underwriting to offering groups the chance to pay to privately build certain parts of the model as community-building experiences.

Some people are already connecting to the model in unique ways. Very early in the project, the grandson of a craftsman who helped make a number of the cathedral’s stained-glass windows, including the creation rose window, decided to honor him and others in his family by covering the cost of two Lego windows in the Bethlehem Chapel.

Vanessa Bateman, an engineer who works for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Washington, said one of the first visitors she met was the 82-year-old daughter of an ironworker who helped build the cathedral.

The scale model of Washington National Cathedral needs 18 columns for the nave. Each comes multiple pages of instructions. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

One day, a blind man came to the build site and felt the model’s pillars. “Then he went out into the church and touched the real pillars” to feel the seaming and the break in the stone columns,” said Anne Stubbs, a cathedral member and volunteer since March 1.

“It’s just so exciting that they get a chance to interact with this building and build it on their own,” said Bateman, who builds Lego creations with her 11-year-old son. “They touch it, they get to build part of it, they get come back and say, ‘Hey, I was a part of this.’”

All of the building effort can also serve as what Fulcher called a “literal and figurative touch point” for a visit to the cathedral, which is the sixth-largest in the world and second-largest in the United States.

For instance, recently a 6-year-old boy came with his family to build, and after working on part of the Bethlehem Chapel, a volunteer suggested that the family visit the “real” chapel.

They did so and came back to compare it with the model. That was when the boy told the volunteers that something wasn’t right. He noticed there were no flowers on the altar in the chapel down in the crypt.

“I almost jumped up and down when the volunteers told me that because what that says to me is this 6-year-old boy moved past just the sense of awe and the sense of mouth-agape wonder [at the building], and he was observing, and he was paying attention, and he was pulled into the details that can so easily be lost,” Fulcher said.

So, the flowers were removed from the model altar and, in keeping with Lent, Fulcher got some small pieces of purple fabric from the altar guild at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in College Park, Maryland, which he attends with his family, to veil the chapel cross. The veil was changed out for a red one on Palm Sunday and remained until Easter when it was removed and the flowers returned, he said.

Construction update, brick by brick

As of Easter, 18,057 bricks had been assembled since the March 1 launch, according to Fulcher. Of that total, 6,258 were bought by 723 residents of the District of Columbia and nearby Maryland and Virginia, the top three locations. At least one person from every state, one United States territory and 49 other countries have donated. Onsite purchases are outpacing online donations 71% to 29%.

This is how the Lego scale model of Washington National Cathedral looked on April 14. When it is finished in two or three years, it will be the size of a minivan, weigh 1,350 pounds and have between 400,000 and 500,000 bricks. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

Repairing the cathedral continues to be a financial challenge

The cathedral itself has essentially been a work site since it sustained significant damage when the unusual East Coast earthquake struck near Mineral, Virginia, about 84 miles southwest of Washington, during the early afternoon of Aug. 23, 2011. It was felt from Ontario to North Carolina to Ohio. A second magnitude 4.2 quake struck the same area the next day.

Cathedral officials said repairs would cost millions, in part because of the building’s handcrafted stonework. Many churches, including the cathedral, discovered after the quake that their insurance did not cover earthquake damage. The building suffered further a week later when Hurricane Irene’s high winds caused loose masonry to fall and further displaced some of the pinnacles.

Then in September 2011, a 500-foot crane erected to stabilize damaged sections of the cathedral’s central tower collapsed four days before the cathedral was due to reopen to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The cathedral finally opened Oct. 5, 2011, for the ordination and consecration of Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde as the ninth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington.

The cathedral has raised and spent $15 million for earthquake repairs and allocated the money toward stabilization, engineering and design, cleaning and resealing stained glass windows, masonry repair and repointing, and overall maintenance, according to information here. Fulcher said there’s still $19 million worth of work to be done. Based on $2 per brick for between 400,000 and 500,000 pieces, that means between $800,000 and $1 million, which he said will make “a small dent” in that $19 million.

However, the cathedral hopes that the build will, in Fulcher’s words, “continue to shine a spotlight on the need and bring in support from other avenues as well.”

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is the Episcopal News Service’s senior editor and reporter.