[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.
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.