Building Washington National Cathedral by Andrew Bittner

9781467134545.jpgI’ve been fascinated by Washington National Cathedral since childhood. The early attraction was its apparent similarity to some kind of castle, with “secret” passageways, spiral tower stairways and a crypt. Of course, I quickly learned that crypt was just a fancy word for basement, but the hook had been set. My interest in history developed around the same time. That happened in the Devil’s Den at the Gettysburg battlefield, where I repeatedly looked at a picture on a tablet, and then stood in the spot depicted. History happened right there, and it was like I could feel it coming through the soles of my feet. This wasn’t a place like the place where history happened. This is the place where history happened… and photography mattered. My passion for history was born of a place and an Alexander Gardner photograph.

My early interest in Washington National Cathedral led to related interests in gothic architecture, English history and medieval Europe. I spent years poring through books about the ancient gothic cathedrals, learning the differences between them and learning how, historically-speaking, most proved to be time capsules, primarily for the people and culture that built them. Following the completion of Washington National Cathedral in 1990, a ten year electronic study of the structure suggested that it could last for centuries and, perhaps, even millennia. With that information in hand, it occurred to me to wonder whether Washington National Cathedral might become the great time capsule of 20th century mankind. How would people 800 to 1,000 years hence view us and our times through the window in time provided by Washington National Cathedral?

How do we view the people who built the ancient Gothic cathedrals, and the times in which they lived? One thing is certain… we don’t know a lot about the actual builders. We know the names of the kings and dukes, or this bishop or that, but we actually know almost nothing about the individuals who mixed the mortar, set and carved the stones, or designed and fabricated the glass. It seems no one concerned themselves with that side of the story. One thing is certain. There weren’t any cameras. This thought first occurred to me many years ago, and for years some of my personal fantasies involved the collection of construction photos that must exist in Washington National Cathedral’s archives.


I became a fan of Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series the first time I saw one of the books. It was, almost certainly, Michael Dwyer’s book on Montgomery County, Maryland. I first became involved with the process of producing these wonderful books when I was asked by an author to provide photography. I must admit, I failed the effort miserably. All of my own photography was in negative or slide form, and I, otherwise busy and daunted by the tech challenge of scanning to specific publisher requirements, failed to provide imagery for someone else’s book. I owe that person an apology. I’ve since overcome my photo/techno-phobia.
The Images of America series came calling again, when I was asked, as a recognized local historian in my hometown, to support a prospective young author considering writing an Arcadia book on my hometown. That book didn’t happen, but, in the process, I’d been asked to provide my own background and qualifications to the publisher. This would change everything. An astute acquisitions editor replied, “I see that you’re a docent at the Washington National Cathedral- we are very interested in publishing a pictorial history of the cathedral and I’ve been trying to reach someone there who may be interested in taking on this book project. Do you think this is something you would like to pursue?” It was a question that would change my life.

An Images of America book on Washington National Cathedral dovetailed nicely with my sense that no such book on the ancient cathedrals could exist, and such a book on Washington National Cathedral would be a first. The problem was that I was already an employee at Washington National Cathedral and would have to accomplish permissions and accesses to the different photographic archival sources, without rocking any boats or upsetting anyone. The project languished for over a year. Just getting people interested in the possibility of such a book turned out to be difficult. The solution came in the person of wonderful, new operations executive, to whom I explained the potential book. He was interested. He’d see what he could do. What he did was rapidly ascend to the position of chief operating officer for Washington National Cathedral, and from that seat he gave the book an emphatic green light.


The first lesson I learned as a potential Arcadia author, was that Arcadia has a process and that process will be followed. Despite having been asked to do the book by an Arcadia acquisitions editor, I had to create and submit a proposal for the book. I scraped through my personal collections and across the Internet for relevant photography, and created captions. The proposal was accepted and work began, in earnest, in January of 2014. The first thing I did was propose a title change… not Washington National Cathedral, but, more specifically, Building Washington National Cathedral.

I’d never done anything like this before, and, acting alone, I decided the best way to create the best collection of photographs would be to collect far more than I would ever use and select the best. The analogy in my head was of growing a very large garden of flowers and then, at the critical moment, walking through and selecting the best. At the same time, my job and ongoing employment had to remain a priority. I needed to not step on toes or inconvenience those going about their regular cathedral duties, and I could not let my real work suffer on account of the book.

I gathered most of the photography for the book from three resources; the cathedral’s archives, the digital collection in the cathedral’s communications department, and the online digital collections of the Library of Congress. Getting material from the Internet or from digital collections was simple, but dealing with the cathedral archives would be very different. There I’d be working with prints, each an archival artifact. I fully expected to have to do all the scanning within the confines of the archive facility, not conflicting with my own work schedule and not using paid cathedral resources.

To my delight, it turned out I would be allowed to remove prints from the archive and scan them at home. The fact that I was limited to removing 15 at a time actually served to make for neat ½-hour, lunchtime length research sessions. So, several times a week, for months, I ran to the cathedral archives at lunch and moved forward through the dated sequence of construction images –thousands of images- until I’d picked another 15 plums. At home, I would scan each print, including the back for any archival information written there, and create a filename based on the historic date, actual or assumed, of the image. I collected close to 300 images that way, and added to them another 350 from the cathedral’s digital collections and the Library of Congress. Images from a few private collections were added, all files were converted to the historic date filename protocol, and my “garden” was complete. Final selections for the book would come from a timeline of over 700 photographs.

From that point, honestly, compiling and writing the book was pretty easy.  Providing commentary on the 192 photos finally included in the book went quickly, with restraint to caption length comments being the only struggle. From acquisition to final proof, Arcadia’s process was sound and easy to learn. Their personnel, each step of the way, were kind, supportive and helpful. It was a delight to learn something of publishing’s practices in such a structured way. In the end, Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series was the venue for a book I’d been imagining for a long time, and I hope the book I created will both entertain and inform for years to come.