Keeping Faith at Old St. George

Despite insurance, little work done at fire-ravaged Clifton landmark

Seventeen months after a major fire nearly claimed Old St. George Church in Clifton, its iconic spires are still missing from the city’s skyline.

The church lies dormant, virtually moth-balled with temporary roofing while its owner, the Clifton Heights Community Urban Redevelopment Corp. (CHCURC), decides its fate.

Relatively little has been done to the building since the four-alarm fire on Feb. 1, 2008, as Cincinnatians still routinely stop by to sentimentally survey the damage to the site of family baptisms, weddings and funerals. And more than a few wonder: When will something be done with the church?

The simple answer is: Not until next year, at the earliest.

Despite the outward appearance of inactivity, the past year and a half has seen a flurry of effort to preserve the church and determine what its next life holds. CHCURC has settled on its intention to restore the church with historic accuracy, engaging in talks with a Cleveland company to that end. The group has also started the long road of raising the funds to accomplish it.

CHCURC feels the pressure to get the project up and moving, says its director, Matt Bourgeois.

“There’s hardly a day that goes by without someone asking about St. George,” he says. “Everyone seems to have a connection to it. The reality is, these kinds of community assets come and go sometimes, before you can do anything about it. The fire gave us a fresh perspective, in that we came so close to losing it forever.”

Built in 1873 for about $100,000, the church was designed by renowned architect Samuel Hannaford, the man responsible for other Cincinnati landmarks such as City Hall and Music Hall. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati operated the church until selling it in 1994 to a community group for use as a meeting space. Demolition was a constant threat until CHCURC bought the church in 2005 for $1.6 million.

Without a plan for its use, the church sat vacant until the fire.

Early that Friday evening, combustible materials stored too close to an exposed light bulb sparked the spectacular blaze that raced up the two steeples. Though relatively little fire damage was done inside, the church’s spires both were total losses, eventually tumbling to Calhoun Street below.

The spires, acting as a chimney for the fire, saved the inside of the church from major fire and smoke damage but acted as a funnel for the water used to fight the blaze. The church suffered considerable water damage as thousands of gallons puddled inside.

After the fire, CHCURC began working with City Center Properties, initially considering ideas of adapting the church to alternative uses. With similar projects in Pittsburgh as models, options ranged from retail space to a boutique hotel like the award-winning The Priory, a former Catholic Church built there in 1852 that was converted to a hotel in 1986. A micro-brewery was also considered, like the steel city’s Church Brew Works.

Meanwhile, fundraising had begun in earnest. CHCURC got an insurance settlement for the fire damage, though officials won’t disclose the amount. Also, city officials promised $200,000 in funding for improvements, Bourgeois says.

By the end of the year, the alternative-use effort was losing steam, though.

“The board grappled with that question, and finally we decided that the ideal path to take was to restore it to exactly like it was when it was built,” he says. “We want to use the same materials, stay true to its history. We didn’t want to cut any corners. The flip side to that is if it was even possible. We want to come as close to it as we can.”

It would also be much more expensive.

CHCURC parted company with City Center and started talking partnership with Cleveland-based Paran Management, a firm with a track record of restoring historic churches, Bourgeois says.

The pairing would focus on an exacting restoration, with an ultimate goal of improving the church’s designation on the National Register of Historic Places and ensuring long-term survival, according to CHCURC. Paran would be counted on for fundraising help and for its expertise in guiding the restoration’s detail.

“It’s very particular,” says Bourgeois. “That’s what Paran does and what they like to do. They’re very good at putting together the pieces of the puzzle to get that historic designation. Then you get a truly historic building that’s protected for the next 100 years.”

Paran executives declined to comment since details of the partnership haven’t been finalized.

The plan has been met with praise.

The Cincinnati Preservation Association had been involved in trying to save the church and restore it since the archdiocese decided to sell it and is thrilled with the new plan, according to preservation director Margo Warminski.

“We’ve been working to save Old St. George for such a long time, and we always wanted it restored to something appropriate to its original use,” Warminski says. Though the group never publicly favored one use over another, “we really didn’t want it divided up into compartments or used for something that wasn’t appropriate to its original use. We’re very happy with this,” she adds.

CHCURC hopes to finalize the Paran partnership by the end of the year, then work on finding money for the restoration. That effort suffered a setback in May, however.

Last month, CHCURC received word that its $700,000 grant request to the Cincinnati Empowerment Corp. had been declined. Officials were “shocked and disappointed,” says Bourgeois, a former member of the Empowerment board.

“We thought we had good chance. We had 15 letters of support from everyone from the university president and the Preservation Association to the city architect and community groups,” he says.

Harold Cleveland, CEO of Cincinnati Empowerment, said the project was merely a victim of limited resources.

“It’s a competitive process,” Cleveland says. “There wasn’t anything negative about the project. It’s a great project, they gave a great presentation and there’s a lot of passion there.”

The Empowerment Zone, he said, had just less than $3 million to give this year. It received 52 requests, including CHCURC’s, and approved 17.

“We just did not have enough money to go around,” Cleveland says. “We would have loved to fund all 52 projects, but we couldn’t.”

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