Religion has inspired the greatest architectural achievements in history, giving rise to iconic styles like Gothic, Gothic Revival and Byzantine, among others. Even in ancient times, a church’s architecture was about creating something sacred, offering something tangible to anchor a person to the space.
But you don’t have to travel to an ancient land or far-off country to experience some of the most remarkable aspirational architecture. These American churches are famous for their unique architecture and are open and available for tours in your own backyard.
Washington National Cathedral
The Washington National Cathedral has been a part of America’s fabric since 1893, well after George Washington and Pierre L’Enfant first proposed the idea of a “great church for national purposes” in the nation’s new federal city. It was in that year that Congress approved a charter to create the cathedral, but construction would not begin for 14 more years, and it did not end until 1990, nearly 83 years later.
Today, the cathedral is where the nation comes together to celebrate — with proud ringing of the bells for important moments in the nation’s history — and to mourn at presidential funerals. The building features soaring arches; stunning stained-glass windows; flying buttresses; hand-carved stonework, a collection that includes 1,242 grotesques and gargoyles; and fantastic views of the city.
“The cathedral is perhaps the nation’s best example of English Gothic architecture,” said Kevin Eckstrom, chief communications officer for the Washington National Cathedral. “It tells the story of the American experiment and God’s love for the world.”
The cathedral is a house of prayer for people of all faiths and walks in life; every piece of America is represented, from windows of American heroes to needlework of scenes from history to the final resting places of Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller. Underground garage bus parking makes for easy group access for large groups and tours.
Old North Church and Historic Site
Along the Freedom Trail in Boston’s historic North End, the Old North Church and Historic Site is the oldest standing church building in Boston and one of the world’s premier Georgian buildings. The church, built in 1723, was inspired by the work of British architect Christopher Wren, the man credited as the mastermind behind the engravings of St. James Piccadilly in Westminster, England. Wren’s engravings likely acted as a guide for the architects who designed the Old North Church.
The church offers daily tours, during which visitors can gaze at the box pews, which are still in use. Another highlight is the steeple where church leaders climbed on the evening of April 18, 1775, after a warning call from Paul Revere and held up the two lanterns that ultimately signaled the start of the American Revolution as the British began their march to Lexington and Concord.
“My favorite aspect is probably the box pews, since they are so rare to find in a church nowadays,” said Leslie Lawler, communications and events coordinator at the Old North Church and Historic Site. “They are really striking to see in person.”
In addition to the daily tours, the church also offers a special hourlong Anglican Art and Architecture tour that is available by request and special appointment for groups of up to 15 people. The tour examines the aesthetic components of the church and visits areas usually off limits to the public.