May 29, 2024
Secret passageways and ancient artifacts are the stars of new "behind-the-scenes" tours of the famous church.

It’s a blustery spring afternoon in San Francisco, and we are gathered for one of the first-ever behind the scenes tours of that Gothic wonder, Grace Cathedral.

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The seat of the Episcopal Diocese of California – and it holds the literal seat of its bishop, more on that in a bit – the cathedral is about two-thirds the size of Notre-Dame. With a similar Gothic Revival-style architecture with Northern French influence, it gives Parisian visitors deja vu, our guide says.

It may look like a grand flourish sitting atop Nob Hill, but the cathedral is still under construction — as you’ll discover now that these tours have opened to the public. Built in 1862, the original structure was destroyed during the 1906 earthquake and ensuring fire. Construction began on the current cathedral in 1927.

Today, the vaulting near the ceiling is unfinished and some statue niches remain empty. “It has been said that a great cathedral is never finished, words that echo the unfinished work of the Spirit,” says Julie Knight, director of cultural membership and visitor experience. Grace will one day be completed, but in the meantime it holds all sorts of neat fundraising activities. There are concerts devoted to the music of Nintendo and Hayao Miyazaki movies, yoga atop its labyrinths, sound baths and now, architectural tours like this new exploration of historic rooms, hidden passageways and ancient artifacts.

A view of the altar of the Chapel of Grace which was made in 1521 A.D. is one of the sights during a behind-the-scenes tour of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, April 5, 2024. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

Our guide today is Kenn Sparks who, with a trimmed beard and rumbling basso, has the presence of an Orson Welles.

We stand in the cavernous central hall of the cathedral, which has massive organ pipes in front and also in back. If it didn’t, there’d be a quarter-second sound delay, and the front part of the congregation would be singing earlier than the back rows – presumably annoying god.

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Waterfalls of peacock-colored stained glass filter in natural light. There are nearly 7,300 square feet of stained glass in the building, depicting more than 1,100 famous figures from Adam and Eve up to Albert Einstein.

Tour group visitor Kelly Huibregtse, of San Francisco, stands on a balcony overlooking the indoor labyrinth during a behind the scenes tour of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, April 5, 2024. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

Up on a mezzanine is what looks like a child’s toy piano. If a child actually played it, though, the results might cause a public emergency. The keys link to dozens of bells in the tower, including a six-ton one that rings the hours. The bells clang to celebrate World Series and Super Bowl wins and other commemorations. Sometimes after service, musicians like to noodle on the keyboard, playing popular songs like “Over the Rainbow” and “I Left my Heart in San Francisco.”

We enter an ambulatory or hidden passageway located behind the altar. Clergy use this shadowy hallway during services to scurry from one side of the church to the other. A number of beautiful stained-glass windows point toward the Anglican Churches of the Pacific Basin, from New Zealand to Taiwan to Japan.

Now we’re inside the vestry, which is paneled entirely in ornate walnut and smells like a classy antique shop. This is where the California bishop (currently Marc Handley Andrus) keeps a private camp to pray and store liturgical vestments. We observe a bible open to Ezekiel: 35 (“I lay your towns in ruins; you shall become a desolation, and you shall know that I am the LORD”) and run our fingers through the bishop’s cloaks – not sure if his eminence would approve of this, but he’s not here right now. The vestments are all hand-sewn, and a member of our group jokes she has a friend who became a bishop “only for the clothes.”

A view of the bishop’s vestry seen during a behind the scenes tour of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, April 5, 2024. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

Next up is the Chapel of Grace. This small chapel is normally closed and has Spanish-style wrought-iron gates barring passage from the outside. William Randolph Hearst’s body was laid in state here, and Bill Clinton booked it in 1994 to pray during a trip to San Francisco — just him, his thoughts and the Secret Service lurking in the background.

The cathedral holds all manner of unexpected artifacts. There’s a circa 1521 stone tomb from France with a coat of arms from the monastic-military Knights Hospitaller, Order of Saint John of Jerusalem. According to legend a Crusader knight was interred here but no longer, as French revolutionaries scattered his bones. A Romanesque limestone credence table for the host and wine likely dates to the 12th century; it’s the oldest furnishing in the church.

The next large room is filled with art and furniture, including the bishop’s chair, carved from redwood with armrests shaped like an owl (wisdom) and lion (strength). A hallway holds Ansel Adams photographs and an oak eagle carved by Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor of Mount Rushmore. It served as the cathedral’s lectern up until the 1960s. Lit from below is a brilliant, colorful portrait from photographer David LaChapelle of a Haitian model as the Virgin Mary; it was gifted a couple years ago and consecrated as an icon of the cathedral.

Docent Joe Garity gives a tour of the columbarium inside the Chapel of St. Francis during a behind the scenes tour of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, April 5, 2024. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

The cathedral’s crypt is unusual in that it’s above ground. There’s room for 3,000 souls, and it’s only half full, so get your plans in order today and you can spend the afterlife here for $8,000. (Though $10,000 will get you a space at a more desirable “eye-to-heart” level.)

We climb into the upper recesses of the cathedral and, crossing a catwalk, encounter E=MC2, the stained-glass Albert Einstein tribute. A glassy version of astronaut John Glenn is nearby. Our guide cautions us to tighten our hardhats, lest they fall off while we’re looking around and bonk the noggins of the faithful below.

Tour group visitor Kelly Huibregtse, of San Francisco, smiles as she ducks down to enter a small passage way inside the south tower during a behind the scenes tour of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, April 5, 2024. The passageway allows visitors to view the stained glass window of Albert Einstein located 174 feet above the floor of the cathedral. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

The final stretch takes us up multiple levels of stairs to an open-air observatory protected by pigeon netting. Bells crash and powerful winds blow, as we take in the cathedral’s nearly 250-foot-tall spire, called Le Fleche, because it represents an arrow shooting prayers directly up to god. There are no gargoyles on this steeple, but there are grotesques, in this case wyverns that look like fire-breathing dragons with scorpion tails. They’re meant to ward off evil from not just the church but also the city.

“I think we might need more dragons,” rumbles our guide Sparks.

The tower offers nearly 360-degree views of the expansive city below. Our attention is caught by a building in a park across the way. It’s the Pacific-Union Club at the top of Nob Hill, one of the largest men’s-only clubs in the U.S. The motto, our guide intones, is rumored to be “No women, no journalists, no Democrats.”

A view of the Albert Einstein stained glass window can only be seen during a behind the scenes tour of Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, April 5, 2024. The window is located almost 200 feet above ground. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

Details: General admission to San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, located at 1100 California St., is $12. Behind the scenes tours are $27 to $30. Reserved a timed entry ticket at gracecathedral.org.

A pedestrian walks past Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, Calif., on Friday, April 5, 2024. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group) 

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