First Lutheran Church Bell Tower

Seeking Preservation Solution for Historic Church

Photo Credit: Phil Armstrong

Update on Status of the Effort to Save the Bell Tower

 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.

Background on 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 / facade 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 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 $1.2 million. The access and interior renovation project is also in this range. Funds are not available for either project at this time.
  • Demolition will cost $240,000 to $300,000 and could begin as soon as December. 
  • A effort to raise funds for the first phase of the stabilization restoration is underway.  It will also be important to have a realistic plan for the remaining fundraising. 

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.

The bell tower is an important of the historic setting of Washington Park

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 major restoration of the facade and stained glass was completed in 2018 for a cost of $1.3 million.

A Convergence of Ideals and Architectural Expression

Original Rendering of First English Lutheran by Crapsey and Brown, Architects, 1895

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.”

Photo Credit: Phil Armstrong
The floor plan is an example of the "Akron Plan." An open, flexible church planing style innovation which Crapsey and Brown popularized.

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

The tower is part of a dialogue across the park with Music Hall which had been built just 17 years earlier before.

Structural Conditions

Tower at roof line showing the exposed steel beam and stone areas in need of repair or replacement.
Photo Credit: Phil Armstrong

Watch this site for updates on ways you can help save the First Lutheran Church Bell Tower.