The cathedral, first envisioned by President George Washington and architect Pierre L'Enfant, was built on one of the city's highest points.
Episcopalians took in donations from around the country to fund construction. At one point, the National Cathedral Association had nearly 35,000 members. But in the 1990s and early 2000s, the cathedral was considered complete, and the association was disbanded.
Leaders had built a dedicated congregation and felt the finances were strong enough to incur some financial risk, Cox said. For example, the cathedral agreed with the schools that share its property to finance and build a $34 million garage that was completed in 2007. They expected to recoup most or all of the construction costs with parking fees over 30 years.
Then came the Great Recession, and the garage debt became a drag. The cathedral is devoting more than $500,000 a year in its budget to the garage, setting aside some funds to prepare for higher principal payments that will come due in 2017.
Declines in the endowment and in donor support as the stock market tumbled also led the church to cut back on growth and refocus on core services in 2008 and 2009. Dozens were laid off.
Since the financial crisis, the cathedral has begun rebuilding its donor base, said Cox, who was formerly CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Officials have restarted the National Cathedral Association, which now includes about 5,000 members.
To help fund a 10th anniversary commemoration of Sept. 11, the cathedral sought a corporate sponsor, Lockheed Martin, for the first time.
Since it reopened in November following the earthquake, visitors encounter a new experience. A new welcome counter lists fees for $10 audio tours and specialty tours focused on its stained glass, gargoyles and other features. Visitors are asked for a contribution of at least $5 for a basic tour, replacing a single donation box.
So far, visitors are giving an average of about $3 per person, nearly double what the box elicited. Cox said visitors have responded positively to the new approach to contributions.
It also hopes its partnership with the trust will help it tap donations from foundations focused on historic sites.
The earthquake simply crystalized the need, Cox said, "to be taking fairly dramatic and aggressive steps to find a way to fund this cathedral for the future and for its preservation."
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