Architectural renewal of century-old Over-the-Rhine church shows its relevancy to neighborhood

Pastor of Cincinnati's First Lutheran Church, across from Washington Park on Race Street, has big plans for further changes.

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click to enlarge First Lutheran Church on Race Street in Over-the-Rhine - PHOTO: Hailey Bollinger
PHOTO: Hailey Bollinger
First Lutheran Church on Race Street in Over-the-Rhine

Until recently, if you happened upon First Lutheran Church at 1208 Race St. in Over-the-Rhine, there’s a chance you never saw the building itself. Since September 2016, it had been hidden behind scaffolding set up to protect passersby from the falling pieces of red limestone that were breaking off from the façade.

And that tower of scaffolding only rose higher as renovations began. The historic Over-the-Rhine church, dedicated on May 12, 1895, was far from its glory days. Half of the limestone would need to be replaced and sanded to match the original stone. The south entrance facing Washington Park would need repairs, too, including new stone lettering above the entryway and a fresh stain on the doors. Plans were made to restore the 1948 lighted sign. Rotted woodwork needed to be replaced, and the flat roofs needed either to be patched or replaced completely. The main stained glass window would need to be shipped to Minnesota for repairs and cleaning.

This month, the $750,000 restoration project was finally completed. The towers of plastic and metal were lifted away to reveal … a beautiful old church. The folks at First Lutheran Church didn’t want to dramatically change anything about their 121-year-old home, so everything is improved but not necessarily new.

“Just as Music Hall had many details brought back to life from old pictures, so too did our façade come back to life,” says Pastor Brian Ferguson.

Newer downtown and Over-the-Rhine residents have been quick to notice the changes. For many of them, it’s the first time really seeing First Lutheran Church. Its prominent location, right by the streetcar’s southbound Washington Park stop, makes it a very visible presence. And with so many other churches in the city being repurposed, they’re also surprised to find out that it is still an active church rather than having been changed into a concert venue or an upscale apartment building, Ferguson says.

When he looks at his church now, he is glad to know its appearance is so appealing. It is working to serve the ministry, instead of being a disincentive to attend.

“During the restoration years we were able to grow our ministry, but there was definitely a drop-off in wedding requests,” he says. “Who would want to get married in a shrink wrap church?”

The faithful remained believers in the future for First Lutheran Church during the process. “The people who could see past the façade — pun intended — recognized that the restoration effort was an indicator that something exciting must be going on to enable a downtown church to tackle such a big project,” Ferguson says.

The exterior may now look picture-perfect, but there’s still work to do inside — another $350,000 worth of work, actually. During the façade renovation, First Lutheran Church worked to secure funding and finalize plans to restore the building’s 2,000-square-foot second-floor gallery. It will be restored in full, adding 200 balcony seats for services and creating room for the area to serve as an event space.

Seven more stained glass windows were sent for repairs in April, and installation of a new HVAC system will begin in early July. After a few more months of work, First Lutheran Church plans to hold an event in November to celebrate the new interior.

Then, First Lutheran Church will look ahead to the next year. There are plans to add a street-level welcome center in 2019 in a building just north of the church that they already own. That building will get an estimated $1.1 million makeover. The exterior will be restored to its original 1940s-era appearance, and it will have glass doors. The welcome center will also serve as an accessible entrance to the church itself, with an elevator so that all three levels of the church can be easily reached.

For First Lutheran Church, all this is about more that aesthetics — it’s a sign that it’s still a working part of the Over-the-Rhine community.

“A great deal of our restoration work is being driven by our desire to continue to be a vibrant faith community in the urban core of Cincinnati,” Ferguson says.

First Lutheran Church is located at 1208 Race St., Over-the-Rhine. More info:

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