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. Doug Desper says:

    I used to enjoy going to the Washington National Cathedral. Over the years I have sensed that it has become the plaything for indiscriminate inclusion. They have taken the phrase “A House of Prayer for All People” to mean that they are a House of Worship for Any Faith. Now, to charge to see the place? What happened to the numbers and attendance that were to come with radical inclusion?

  2. John David Healy says:

    I lived across from the Cathedral for 14 years. I attended many a service and used it as solace when my wife died. I have been an active Episcopalian since. I can understand a modest fee for a guided tour, but just to walk in?? Many of our finest institutions are on hard times financially. I would suggest outreach by the Cathedral to local churches across the land because it is so much the center of national ceremonies. Also, the Cathedral might try attracting young adults rather than driving them away with a fee.

  3. Elizabeth Barnett says:

    The Vatican charges admission to enter the Sistine Chapel and other museums in the complex. I think it is perfectly acceptable for the National Cathedral to do so. Unlike most of D.C.’s museums, the cathedral is not part of the federal government and cannot receive upkeep/operations money from taxpayers. This is a beautiful and historic cathedral that should be preserved and maintained. Visitors from all over the world come to see the art and architecture and are not there to worship. As long as the doors remain open and anyone can come and pray or attend services free of charge, I don’t see any problem with this. I think it is a good solution to a challenging financial dilemma.

  4. Peter Meyers says:

    For 25 years I served as executive director of a telephone crisis line, a small independent organization with no government support, even though we served the city and state and beyond–in Mississippi for goodness’ sake–and managed to survive before my tenure and after, and never in its 42 year history did we charge so much as a dime to any caller under any circumstance; in fact, on occasion, we bought bus tickets, paid taxi fares, filled gas tanks, and negotiated for reasonable motel rates for families and individuals in crisis. If a small, independent Mississippi non-profit organization with not a single major donor has the hustle to raise enough money to survive, then surely something as august as the National Cathedral with access to some of the richest people and corporations in the US can figure out how to get along without squeezing the public who, maybe for the first time, are setting foot in an Episcopal–or even a Christian–church. What a turn off! Like some of the other writers here, I am embarrassed by the lack of imagination and pettiness this represents.
    Evangelism? Forget it. I wonder what rationale Jesus cooked up to charge the crowds. Oh, that was Judas. Oops.

  5. Andrew Castiglione says:

    While visiting a tourist attraction church in Quebec a number of years ago, a small building just beyond the church proper had a sign in front of it, which read…. “Confessions….$10.00” How lovely!! In Boston, Mass., as many of you now know after reading the above, Trinity Church has been charging admission for a number of years. How lovely!

    So in order for anyone who is in need for “a closer walk with God” , Monday through Saturday when services are not being held, and just want to sit, pray, and meditate, you have to fork up dollars. To feel the closeness of God has becoming expensive. Of course, we can always stay outside…..and feel God’s presence in the great outdoors. There is nothing wrong with that. It does work!! Remember, God’s Love is outside as well as inside. Here in Boston, some of you know of our second cathedral, know as “Common Cathedral”. If you don’t know about it, Google it. You will be very comforted.

  6. Sally Rowan says:

    Perhaps individual contributors and philanthropies have seen the chaos and disintegration of TEC and chosen to give elsewhere? They’re not going to give to an organization if they have any questions as to where their donation would go.

    The Episcopal Church overall has had a significant drop in pledges and donations; the official attendance records in diocesan annual reports show this. Parishes ask the diocese for a reduction in the expected contribution to the diocesan office: the parishes don’t have nearly enough for their own ministry needs and desires, much less to pay that diocesan budget request. Staff are cut back.

    TEC has lost significant parishes and dioceses – Pittsburgh has split; San Joaquin has left; South Carolina has left; Qunicy IL, has left; Fort Worth has left. An enormous amount of money goes to the lawsuits against parishes and dioceses that choose to leave TEC because of the direction it has taken (see: Also legal challenges to the court decisions about Quincy.).

    A church that leaves TEC is not allowed to buy its building, so dioceses are stuck with the costs of empty buildings. This is not a wise move – in a serious business, keeping unused buildings when there are significant interested buyers would be deemed fiscally irresponsible at best. The board would fire the officers, or the stock holders would replace board members in elections.

  7. Ingrid McCord says:

    I don’t know about all these responses. I have been Jr. Warden for three different churches and would love to charge due to all the damage and cost associated with being an open building. It is exhaustive and expensive to maintain and repair due to high traffic.

  8. Bertram Emeka-Ekwue says:

    I do support the idea of charging a $10 fee to visit the cathedral. I think it is long overdue. The Episcopal church as a whole is in a financial mess with members not being as generous as they ought to be or have been in the past, which is due to the economic down turn in the country and worldwide. As some have mentioned, the cathedral does not receive much of anything from anyone, and it has been doing very well over many years to keep its feet above water. I think times have changed, and I understand why folks who lived in the days when almost everything went for free are disappointed at this proposition. I was disappointed when I recently became very active in my Parish church, to find that the Episcopal church in general never cozied up to the type of investments that churches like Baptist or Presbyterian churches embraced years ago where they owned investments like apartment complexes, office or senior living buildings that generate money for the church. That failure to invest is catching up with the Episcopal church everywhere, and this fee is a result of that failure. Attendance and membership at all churches are down significantly resulting in less and less revenue for churches.
    I urge those who oppose this $10 entrance fee to rethink their position and support it whole heartedly. If they see the fee as a token gift to God for the upkeep of His house, the Cathedral, I have no doubt their hearts would warm up to it, in Jesus Name! I pray they would!

    1. Sally Rowan says:

      Bertram –
      You mention “members not being as generous as they ought to be or have been in the past” and “Attendance and membership at all churches are significantly down.”
      You’re right. But it might not be because of the economic downturn. Chances are good that a lot of the generous supporters actually tithe, and I’d bet a high percentage of tithers are among those who departed. (see my previous message on this, 2 back from yours.)
      I used to live in Maryland, and the regular significant donors at a particular parish were dismayed at the direction taken at General Convention and the diocesan ones as well. They either tithed or were working toward tithing, some giving more than the 10% tithe. Close to 1/2 the congregation at that parish left and were among a group that started a new “Anglican” parish (≠ Episcopalian! You hear some Epis bishops use the words “Episcopalian” and “Anglican” almost interchangeably, like they’re trying to cover up the departure of many people).
      I don’t know the condition of the old parish – it had a significant endowment – but the new Anglican one is doing quite well, and went from renting space to buying a church with a large piece of property that can be use for many different things. Lots of children and teenagers and young parents, and an equal amount of middle-aged and older members.
      Members at another parish lowered their giving to the parish because they didn’t want to have any of their gifts sent to the diocesan fund. They gave directly to other ministries. So the parish’s funds dropped, staff had to be reduced, etc, etc, etc. The diocese asked for $XX from them and they didn’t have it.
      Many church attenders in parishes of any denomination give a few dollars each week. Ten can be seen as a lot. Then they wonder why there have to be significant ways of getting funds. One of the worst things that can happen to any non-profit place is having a handful of significant donors. One of them moves away? Fiscal panic. One person can give $500; fifty people can give $10. Which is less of a crisis waiting to happen? If all the people give, there’s not that panic.
      I once saw a bumper sticker “Tithe if you love Jesus; anyone can honk!”
      If people who attend the Cathedral tithed, the idea of having an entrance fee would be completely unnecessary – they wouldn’t even think about it.

  9. Sally Price says:

    I don’t have any problem at all with paying $10 to enter this marvelous space. The place has suffered earthquake and vandal damage. Even if there was a collection box for voluntary donations – it’s been a couple of years since I’ve been there; there might well be one – I would think that a lot could be collected in that way.

  10. Bertram Emeka-Ekwue says:

    Just wondering how the Cathedral entrance fee is working out? Does anyone know?

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