May 20, 2013

[Slideshow] From Wild to Whimsical: The Gargoyles and Grotesques of Washington National Cathedral

  • More: National Treasures
  • By: Linda S. Glisson, Assistant Director for Information Resources, Main Street
  • Photography: Linda S. Glisson
Exterior of Washington National Cathedral

photo by: Linda S. Glisson

Washington National Cathedral

As a passionate photographer and preservationist, I’m always on the lookout for fascinating buildings, from the funky to the sublime. Washington National Cathedral, winner of this year’s Partners in Preservation contest and also one of our National Treasures, is definitely the latter.

From the light streaming through stained glass windows and bathing the interior in a rainbow glow to the fantastical creatures that adorn the outside, National Cathedral is a photographer’s dream. Every time I visit I discover something new. And no wonder: There are 112 gargoyles, the last completed in 1987, and more than 3,000 grotesques and other architectural carvings.

So, what is a gargoyle? Basically, it’s a drain spout, designed to prevent rainwater from eroding the building’s walls. It’s also said that gargoyles were designed as frightening creatures to ward off evil forces or to remind passersby of the fates of sinners. (On the other hand, some speculate that they were just meant to amuse.)

A gargoyle is also described as a grotesque, but while all gargoyles are grotesques, not all grotesques are gargoyles. Grotesques include all fantastical creatures, whether they have drain pipes or not.

So let’s take a tour of a few of my favorites and learn the stories behind them:

By: Linda S. Glisson, Assistant Director for Information Resources, Main Street

Have a story idea that might be interesting and engaging for a national audience? Read our Contributor Guidelines and email us at

More posts by guest authors (100)

Help save places while earning cash back on every purchase with the National Trust for Historic Preservation BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ Visa® card.

Apply Now