- Washington DC
- Summer Whitford
In Europe, Gothic Cathedrals share the skyline with modern steel and glass buildings and we think nothing of it. America, which is barely 240 years old, may not have Notre Dame de Paris or Westminster Abbey, but we do have stunning examples of Neo-Gothic edifices such as The Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the City and Diocese of Washington, or as it’s more commonly known, Washington National Cathedral.
Located just minutes away from the city’s other monuments, the Cathedral is set on 59 acres in the Upper Northwest neighborhood of Washington, D.C., and every year approximately 418,000 people visit this national treasure. Its beautiful facade is complemented by colorful flower gardens and the Olmsted Woods, one of the last old-growth oak and beech forests located in D.C., which was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.
As lovely as the setting is, however, it’s not the Cathedral’s most popular attraction. That honor is reserved for the carved stone bust of Darth Vader, which is naturally located on the north “dark side” of the Cathedral.
As Kevin Eckstrom, chief communications officer at the Cathedral points out, “The Cathedral is best known for its majestic and jaw-dropping architecture, but the craftsmen also had a lot of fun building it. Everywhere you look, there’s a touch of whimsy and imagination. Darth Vader is just the best-known of our 200-plus gargoyles and grotesques, from otherworldly creatures to snarling monsters and fanciful animals.”
Just seeing the Darth Vader figure is a challenge because it hangs over the edge of the Cathedral up 200 feet on a small gablet on the northwest tower and is visible only with binoculars and a telephoto lens. Yet, somehow this stone sci-fi archetype resonates with thousands who come just to get a glimpse of the Star Wars trilogy’s most notorious villain.
Most people would probably be surprised to learn that luck and a small boy’s drawing helped put the bust there in 1986. Back then, the Cathedral was looking for new subjects for grotesques and statues to decorate the nearly completed two west towers. The search for fresh ideas led to a design-a-carving competition for children and when the competition concluded, several winning drawings were chosen. But it was third-place winner Christopher Rader’s illustration of Darth Vader that stood out. To bring his work to life, sculptor Jay Hall Carpenter created the original carver’s model, and then master stonemason Patrick J. Plunkett carved the figure that is now a beacon for visitors.
For many, Darth Vader is a pop culture icon, but Mr. Eckstrom explains that “Vader isn’t just a grotesque—he’s an invitation to experience the wonder and whimsy of the building. There’s something here for everyone. We do theology here at the Cathedral, and Lord Vader also tells the story of loss, sin, and redemption—and that’s the business we’re in. From our carvings to our stained-glass windows to fanciful ironwork, our artistic treasures draw people inward, and our architecture points people upward, a reminder in stone and glass that there’s something much bigger—and more important—than ourselves.”
How to See the Darth Vader Bust
If you feel the force strongly within you and can’t resist it’s pull, then pay a visit in person by signing up for one of the guided Gargoyle Tours held May through September, or go solo and follow the directions on the Cathedral’s website.
Otherwise, consider taking a virtual tour online or buy a plaster facsimile from the Cathedral Store.
To learn more about the other busts, grotesques, and gargoyles, visit the Cathedral’s Special Features page, including a direct link to viewing Darth Vader, or the D.C. Memorials website, which are filled with photos and background information on each figure, including its name and the name of the artist.
3101 Wisconsin Ave NW, Washington, D.C., USA +1 (202) 537-6200