To save or not to save – a bell tower

By Mark Scott

First, a (very) short history: Built in 1895, the First Lutheran Church at 1208 Race Street, across from Washington Park in Over-the-Rhine, was the architectural expression of a congregation that first came together in 1842, more than 50 years before the church was constructed.

First Lutheran Church, looking from Washington Park

Fast forward 125 years and what exists now is not just a church lovingly improved and maintained by its pastor and congregation, but a downtown landmark that has survived numerous iterations of the neighborhood evolving around it. Along with Music Hall and Memorial Hall, First Lutheran’s better-known across-the-street neighbors, the church is one of the most recognizable edifices in the area, planted astride the park and the burgeoning arts scene that has built itself up over the last decade.

A little more history: When the church and tower were built, the congregation purchased the 2000-pound bell from Verdin for $420, a tidy sum in 1895.

When Pastor Brian Ferguson came to the church in 2014, he and the congregation faced an existential question, one that had been asked many times over the decades: To stay or to go.

They decided to stay. Indeed, it is understood no one from the congregation voted to leave, and since that decision was made those same people have raised and spent close to $1.3 million in improvements to the interior spaces of the building, thereby returning it to some of its former glory and making it more useful to the community.

Fun Fact: 90 percent of those visiting First Lutheran in 2019 did so for non-church events.

In addition to its long-standing outreach service, the church has since become a regular purveyor of performance and artistic space, able to offer a low-cost alternative to the more recognizable venues around the park, which include not just Memorial and Music halls, but also the School for Creative and Performing Arts and Cincinnati Shakespeare, both a stone’s throw from the church. This low-cost space has enabled arts and community groups to remain in the urban core when they might otherwise have been priced out of the market. A win for the city.

Everything was going along swimmingly until 2020, when an inspection determined the bell tower was in danger of collapse. The City required either restoration or demolition. This, naturally, was unwelcome news. The amount of work that would have to go into safely stabilizing and restoring the tower is daunting from a cost-perspective. Pastor Ferguson, in cooperation with the wishes of the congregation, solicited demolition bids, the most reasonable of which was $238,000, while preliminary estimates of a full restoration of the bell tower could cost ten times that much, and the church just doesn’t have that kind of money available.

And it isn’t just that First Lutheran doesn’t have a couple million dollars lying around. First Lutheran was already planning a capital campaign to install an elevator, thereby making the building more accessible for other users. The cold, hard reality is that current resources are not available for a full restoration of the bell tower, even if the congregation was willing to forego things like the elevator which, given the mobility requirements of the congregation and the many others who use the building, is much higher on the priority list.

So what’s a church to do with an ailing bell tower and limited funds?

When word got out about the condition of the bell tower, help arrived in the form of the Cincinnati Preservation Association and the Haile Foundation, both of which have pledged themselves to at least explore the possibility of stabilizing the tower and the feasibility of raising funds to complete the restoration. Each organization could likely donate dollars to the project, but not nearly enough to finance the entire thing, or even anything close to it. Certainly the church, relying on 40 families for its ministry support, is not in a position to be the sole contributor, either. It is clear that, if the bell tower is to be saved, the money will have to come from outside the church.

When asked what he would like to see happen, Pastor Ferguson was circumspect, and paused before he responded, saying he would like to see the tower saved. I understand this is indeed true, but he and his flock, like any family, are in a perpetual juggling act when it comes to finances.

The church is under pressure to act when it comes to time, as well. Given the condition of the tower, the decision window to demolish or stabilize and attempt a restoration is not open very wide. Add to that the fact that costs are rising in the interim, and the need to act is compounded. The worst outcome would be for stabilization costs to become prohibitive, forcing the church to take the tower down, a thing they can do safely without breaking the bank. The church itself doesn’t need the bell tower to fulfill its primary mission. When all is said and done, the “church” itself is contained in the people it serves, not by the building in which they gather.

So why bother? Why choose to spend millions to save something that no longer seems practical to maintain?

When asked, Paul Muller, executive director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, said: “The tower is a perfect example of how architecture can connect us. The design was very progressive. It was a conscious choice by the congregation…to proclaim their forward-looking ideals. The tower…expressed this modern outlook and established a dialogue across the park with Music Hall. Their sky piercing silhouettes proclaimed that Washington Park was a place of importance, a place to enjoy and delight in.”

There’s more at play here than practicality. There’s a desire to remember who we were, who we are, where we’ve been and where we’re going. Aesthetics are important, a placeholder in history. Something built a hundred years ago will never be built again, and if architecture is one of the ways we define our surroundings, then we are simultaneously defined by it. In that case, then saving a 125-year-old bell tower makes absolute sense.

In the end, First Lutheran will carry on with or without a bell tower; with or without a new elevator. The congregants have already done Over-the-Rhine a favor by restoring the interior and opening it to the community, when they could have just walked away from the building altogether. So, if you happen to be wandering around the park, take a moment to stand in front of Memorial Hall and look east across the park. Take a picture. It’s a great view.

Mark Scott is vice president, commercial solutions at First Commonwealth Bank and treasurer of the Cincinnati Preservation Association board of trustees.

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