Cincinnati City Council Member Files to Save Historic West End Church Marked for Wrecking Ball

The church, built as a synagogue in 1865, has deep ties to Cincinnati history, advocates say.

Aug 6, 2019 at 12:37 pm
click to enlarge Revelation Baptist Church - Nick Swartsell
Nick Swartsell
Revelation Baptist Church

The second-oldest structure built as a synagogue still standing in Cincinnati is at the corner of John Street and Bauer Avenue in the West End — just blocks from the coming FC Cincinnati soccer stadium. 

At least, it stands there for now. The team purchased Revelation Missionary Baptist Church at 1556 John St. in May, and on July 3, applied for a demolition permit for the building. That application was approved this week.

The church congregation's leadership says it welcomes the move to a new church constructed by the team in North College Hill. But historic preservationists — and Cincinnati City Council member Chris Seelbach — have mounted an effort to save the German gothic-style, 154-year-old religious structure, an early home to reform Judaism in Cincinnati and the place where famed civil rights leader Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth once preached. 

Seelbach yesterday filed an application with the city's department of planning to get local historic landmark designation for the property. The Cincinnati Historic Conservation Board and City Planning Commission will consider that application and make recommendations before council gives final approval.

Because the demolition permit has already been granted, the designation alone wouldn't save the building — FC Cincinnati would have to miss the six-month window it has to use its permit and reapply for the historic designation to have an impact. Chances that the effort will be able to stop the demolition are slim. But Seelbach says it's still important to try and protect the building and recognize its significant place in Cincinnati history.

According to the historic designation filing, Jewish congregation The Society of Brotherly Love constructed the John Street Temple in 1865 for $47,000 after having worshiped in two smaller locations in the Over-the-Rhine since 1848. The congregation is responsible for another local landmark — the Jewish cemetery on Ludlow Avenue in Clifton, which they established the same year they formed.

It took 27 years for the congregation to buy the leased land the building stood on from descendants of early Cincinnati leader David Wade, and 33 years to pay off the construction debt. 

Today, only the Lodge Street Synagogue on Ruth Lyons Way — constructed in 1861 — is older than the John Street Temple. Cincinnati's iconic Plum Street Temple downtown was built the year after John Street. 

The Society of Brotherly Love counted among its members many influential Cincinnatians, and famed father of American Reform Judaism Isaac Wise preached there on a number of occasions. The synagogue followed Wise's lead and converted to Reform Judaism from its orthodox roots in 1871.

But by 1904, only about 40 congregants remained with the society, and they decided to sell the large John Street building. They eventually merged with another congregation and constructed a new temple together on Reading Road. 

A German Lutheran congregation purchased the building for $15,000 that year and held services in German for the large number of immigrants who had made the city's urban basin their home. The church underwent a $5.000 restoration a few years later which included the addition of new stained glass windows. 

But demographic changes saw many of those Germans leave the West End over the next two decades, and in 1927, the church changed hands again. This time, an African-American congregation called the Revelation Baptist Church moved in. Revelation started in 1921 and worshiped out of nearby rented spaces before congregants Horrace and Melvina Sudduth bought the church for $27,000. Sudduth was a prominent member of the African-American community best known for owning and running the Manse Hotel in Walnut Hills. The next year, the Sudduths transferred the property to the church. 

The church grew in importance in the black community, and, at the height of his Civil Rights work in the south, Rev. Shuttlesworth preached there from 1961 to 1966 before starting his own church in Avondale. In 1965, 5,000 civil rights activists marched from the church to the Hamilton County Court House to demand equal rights for African Americans. 

The building received a significant addition in 1976, which covered part of the original facade with a concrete block structure.

Revelation held onto the church until its sale to FC Cincinnati. The congregation there voted 49-5 to sell the building to the team and approached FC Cincinnati about the deal, according to church leadership. The church will continue to worship at the building until it moves to a new facility constructed by the team on West Galbraith Road. Some of the building's historic stained glass windows and other features will likely be moved to the new site.

"For some time, our church has been interested in opportunities to minister in a new church building located in a new neighborhood that could increase the worship experience of our congregation and promote the growth of our congregation," church Board Chair Walter Collier said in a statement. "We are excited about the opportunity this presents to our church and look forward to increasing our membership at our new church building." 

The team would like to demolish the building and other structures around it as it makes plans for development north of its coming stadium. But Seelbach and historic preservationists believe it should be saved.

The historic designation filing points out that few historic religious structures remain in the West End due to urban renewal demolitions that took place in the late 1950s and that the building is a prime example of early Germanic religious architecture in the city.

"1556 John Street’s current congregation is a long-standing Black Baptist church which has called this building their home for nearly 100 years since 1928," the historic designation filing reads. "The three congregations which have called this building home have marked it as a powerful reminder of Cincinnati’s patterns of urban change."