Help Save the Bell Tower on Washington Park
Update on Status of the Effort to Save the Bell Tower
March 28, 2021: Despite the efforts of First Lutheran Church and many community supporters, the church’s is close to reluctantly making a decision to demolish the historic bell tower. Only quick action can save it. CPA is working with OTR Adopt, community organizations and foundations to raise a substantial portion of the needed $2.5 million dollars. We are making progress and several foundations have come forward with funding to join with CPA in providing $50,000 grants. Individuals are also making pledges of donations to save this iconic part of the Washington Park area.
The Problem: The cost of repairs to the tower, stabilization of the structure and preparation for an elevator for ADA access was recently determined to be $2.5 million. The church is closed and, while the pastor and congregation were willing to remain out of the building for the rest of the year if there was a clear path to funds for the stabilization, in the absence of funding, they feel the demolition needs to move forward so the building can be reopened later this summer.
CPA and others have been working with the church to find a solution. Additional engineering recently revealed that the conditions require the complete structural repair prior to reopening. This means that the planned two- or three-year fundraising campaign is not feasible. So, unless we find major funding in the near future, it looks like this treasure of Cincinnati skyline will be lost.
We have not given up, your help is important. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to make a pledge or use the donate button below to help.
Donations to Help CPA Save the Bell Tower Can be Made Here
If we are not able to save the bell tower, funds donated here will be used to support the Cincinnati Preservation Revolving Fund for Historic Structures.
And if you prefer to donate directly to First Lutheran, that can be done at their website by Clicking Here.
Last fall an engineering report identified damage to the tower’s steel beams and raised concern about the stability of the original tower design. The report resulted in a city building department order for immediate repair or demolition. Public concern for the loss of the bell tower convinced First Lutheran leaders to pause the demolition plan and seek alternatives. Cincinnati Preservation Association (CPA) worked with First Lutheran and committed $50,000 to the project. Local foundations expressed support for the project and a number of individuals came forward with donations and pledges of future support. CPA funded a more detailed engineering evaluation to seek alternatives to demolition and to establish the fundraising need. The cost of repairs to the tower, stabilization of the structure and provision for a future elevator for ADA access was recently determined be approximately $3 million.
The church is currently required to closed for use and, while the congregation takes its responsibility of stewardship for the historic building very seriously, there is a need to return the building to use later this year. The design and funding teams worked to find a phased solution which could use currently available funds to reopen the facility while a longer-term fundraising effort was carried out.
Unfortunately, structural conditions require that all of the work must be accomplished before the church can be opened for use. Our foundation partners and potential donors, while supportive, agree that a $2.5 to $3 million capital campaign would require several years to complete. So, unless a major funding is obtained in the next very near future, the bell tower appears headed toward demolition.
On December 5th the leadership of First Lutheran delayed demolition to provide time for an engineering review of options to stabilize the bell tower right now. If this is feasible with current on identified funding, it will provide the opportunity for a more extensive fundraising effort in the next six months. The goal of the fundraising would to to stabilize and restore the bell tower and provide to fund the much needed elevator to make the three venues within the church accessible.
Stewardship of the Building By First Lutheran
The faith community of First Lutheran has been an excellent steward of their historic building. They are a positive force in the Over-the-Rhine community supporting arts and community organizations as well as providing essential support for people in need. All of us at Cincinnati Preservation Association appreciate the opportunity to assist in searching for alternatives to demolition.
Emergence of the Demolition Crisis
- The demolition risk emerged in September 2020 when a structural review of the bell tower revealed that “Due to the deteriorated condition of the bell tower structure / façade and the inadequacies of the original structural design an immediate remediation of the bell tower is needed.” On the basis of this report the city has ordered immediate repair or, if that is not possible, demolition.
- The parish has plans for an elevator and interior improvements that will support their mission of engaging the community as an arts and meeting venue and aiding people in need. They value the historic aspects of the church but the accessibility project and enhancement of meeting/performance spaces is their top priority.
- Cost to fully stabilize and restore the bell tower is estimated at $3 million. Funds are not available for either project at this time.
- Demolition will cost $240,000 to $300,000 and was delayed in hope of finding alternative.
History of First English Lutheran
First Lutheran was constructed in 1895. The architectural firm of Crapsey and Brown designed the church in the English Gothic style. Crapsey’s obituary in the Western Architect & Builder noted that he “made a specialty of church architecture, and as much as, perhaps more, than any other architect of the country, developed the institutional church building.”
First English Lutheran is on the National Register of Historic Places as a contributing structure of the Over-the-Rhine National Register Historic District. The tower itself is a simple stone mass topped with an exuberant series of copper spire caps. The design is unique and represents a high level of architectural skill. The faith community of First Lutheran has a long history of commitment to helping others and to the cause of equality. Women were granted the right to vote on parish matters in the late 19th century. Today First Lutheran continues that commitment by providing spaces for arts and community groups and by supporting many programs for people in need. Of the 22,000 people who used the building last year, 20,000 were people attending arts programs, community meetings or accessing programs for people in need. The church values its role as a low cost venue supporting the Washington Park arts district.
Community Use of the Meeting and Performance Spaces
Church Serves as an Affordable Venue for Arts and Community Groups
- Ninety percent of the foot traffic at First is non-First Lutheran activity. Over 20,000 people in 2019 which could expand to 100,000 with completed restoration and staff increase.
- Type of Uses That Fill the Year:
- Recitals (many for CCM Students, SCPA cello students)
- Rehearsal space (YPCC is biggest partner, CSO musicians)
- Concerts (Queen City Concert Band, YPCC, Concert Nova, Saengerfest)
- Theater (Fringe Festival)
- Recovery support groups (Narcotics Anonymous, AA)
Food/clothing needs support
- Affordable meeting/event space for non-profit organizations (OTRCH, Tender Mercies, SCPA)
- Community meeting/presentation space for events (OTR History Museum, NKY Chamber)
- Weddings (need not be a member, open to any tradition)
- Restrooms are always open for free public use during big Washington Park events such as BLINK, Lumenocity
The interior spaces have excellent acoustics. They host choral performances, lectures and community meetings on a regular basis. First Lutheran seeks to expand these uses with future accessibility projects.
Previous Investment in the Historic Building
The parish has spent $1.3 million on facade and interior restoration in the last few years. They received recognition for this work from the OTR Chamber of Commerce in 2019. The parish has a deep commitment to supporting disadvantaged residents of OTR and provides a number of programs as part of this mission. The building has significant accessibility challenges and as part of their commitment to welcoming the community to use the spaces, an elevator project remains a high priority. First Lutheran is open to saving the bell tower but does not have the financial means to do so nor do they have the means to do any other work. Their intent has always been to restore the tower but right now they do not have money for the tower or for the elevator project.
A Convergence of Ideals and Architectural Expression
The design represents a departure from direct replication of Gothic architecture. Its simplicity and taut surface treatments are part of a progressive movement in architecture of the late 19th century. This forward-looking approach in architecture underscores the progressive congregation that provided women with voting rights and commitment to services in English rather than German. This open-minded approach remains a defining feature of First Lutheran as it serves people of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. The bell tower is a reminder to the community that, even in a prospering Over-the-Rhine, this extraordinary congregation continues its 125 years commitment to supporting and welcoming those in need.
The building expressed a point of view in 1895, it continues to articulate that message today.
The origins of First Lutheran stylistic innovations can be seen in the mid 19th century work of English architect Gilbert Scott. His High Victorian Gothic Revival buildings departed from literal reproduction of their Gothic sources. The design also has elements of Richardsonian Romanesque, a style which arrived in Cincinnati with the construction of City Hall. The tower of First Lutheran makes an enduring impression with ethereal silhouettes where his building met the sky.
The progressive nature of the design is acknowledged in the fact that it was presented as example of “Modern Styles” in the 1897 Manual of Ecclesiastical Architecture.
In noting that the design has more in common with Cincinnati’s City Hall that Gothic churches, architectural historian Walter Langsam recently called it “Richardsonian Romanesque architecture made swevlt.”
The building was recognized as a progressive departure the reflected the views of the congregants. In writing about the building in 1897 William Martin said “(First Lutheran’s building) is like those small flowers by the wayside. Their modest show hides their beauty, but when they are plucked and beheld, their beauty of form and rare coloring make them rival easily the more obtrusive flower beauties which hang in our gardens.”
Manual of Ecclesiastical Architecture,
William Wallace Martin, 1897