The Washington National Cathedral, a premiere example of Gothic Revival architecture in the United States, is lauded for the integrity of its architectural design and high level of craftsmanship throughout. The lower level of the building houses some of the most exquisite chapels in the cathedral – St. Joseph’s of Arimathea and the Resurrection Chapel – both dedicated to the theme of Christ’s crucifixion, death, deposition from the cross, burial, and resurrection, and it contains the crypt itself, which was both extensive and surprisingly lacking in character and atmosphere. Perhaps due more to evolving attitudes towards interment than to the nature of the existing crypt vaults, full-body burial has proven far less popular than the interment of cremated remains in the Columbarium. The Chapter’s brief to the architect was to significantly reduce the capacity of full-body vaults and increase the capacity of Columbarium niches, thus freeing up valuable space to better uses.

Our solution: devise the smaller crypt as an extension of the adjacent St. Joseph’s Chapel. Conceived as a “passage” more than a contained aedicular space, the ascending section of the new crypt continues the axial procession originating in the chapel. Limestone, portland cement plaster, and vaulted ceilings recast and reorder the salvaged concrete burial vaults in a manner consistent with the Norman Romanesque St Josephs. Complementing but not competing with the traditional craftsmanship, blackened steel perforated gates serve in close proximity to some of the Cathedral’s best decorative iron work. Visible through the historic Yellin gates, this final destination offers passage with a luminous aperture revealing light from beyond.

Photography: Colin Winterbottom