Over-the-Rhine's Historic First Lutheran Church Slated to Tear Down Bell Tower

The beloved bell tower of Over-the-Rhine's First Lutheran Church is slated for demolition after a report from the city says it "presents an immediate threat and hazard to the public safety."

Photo: Hailey Bollinger

The beloved bell tower of Over-the-Rhine's First Lutheran Church is slated for demolition. 

The historic church, dedicated on May 12, 1895, is located on Race Street, across from Washington Park, and underwent significant restoration work (completed in 2018) after falling pieces of red limestone had started to break off the façade.

The folks at First Lutheran didn’t want to change anything about their 121-year-old church, so everything was improved, not necessarily replaced with new. “Just as Music Hall had many details brought back to life from old pictures, so too did our facade come back to life,” says Pastor Brian Ferguson at the time.

Now, the church is facing another architectural crisis. 

On Nov. 10, the City of Cincinnati issued an emergency abatement order for the church — which, during a digital presentation on the bell tower, Pastor Ferguson said did not come as a surprise. The order says: "The bell tower of the church has suffered serious deterioration, is in danger of collapse, and presents an immediate threat and hazard to the public safety."

The church also funded their own report on the state of the bell tower, which says, "The bell tower structure and facade veneer are in poor condition, requiring immediate remediation to establish the stability of these build elements. Should the cost of remediation exceed viable resources, the bell tower should be razed to the level of the supporting girders."

According to Ferguson, when he came to the church in 2014, the building was in need of repair and studies indicated total restoration would cost an estimated $3.1 million. First Lutheran secured funds for the restoration work through 2022.

But then came COVID. And the report from the city. 

So Ferguson says they will be using the funding from Ignite to dismantle the bell tower. 

Photo: YouTube screengrab

The church will need to demolish the bell tower above the blue line (seen above) due to existing engineering and architectural advice.

Quotes for demolishing the tower (and a vacant building the church owns at 1212 Race St., which will be necessary if the tower comes down) ran the gamut between $240,000 and $750,000.

An estimate First Lutheran obtained for a full restoration of the tower would cost $1.2 million and would replace all exterior items with new materials. That exterior restoration would also mean that the 1800s interior would still have some structural concerns.

Demolition would begin in December and could be complete by February.

But there is a possibility that after tearing the current tower down, the church could rebuild a new tower in its place.

The Cincinnati Preservation Association said in an email newsletter, "Preservationists received disappointing news this week from First Lutheran Church in Over the Rhine. The City has ordered an emergency demolition for the 125-year-old structure.We hope a preservation solution can be found quickly, so this key feature of Washington Park's historic character is not gone forever."

During our 2018 story on the restorations, First Lutheran Church said the work meant more than just aesthetics — it was a sign that they’re still a working part of the 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 said. “We have found that offering space to nonprofit and volunteer arts groups is greatly appreciated and valued.”

Ferguson said that in 2019, 20,000 people came through the church's doors — not for worship but for health and human services like narcotics anonymous, food and clothing distributions and community events.

In conversations about throwing in the towel and just selling the building and using the money to open a new ministry somewhere else, Ferguson said: "The spirit of First Lutheran is in this building and this location. The building is not the ministry but there's a story here, a legacy and identity. So if First Lutheran were to sell and move, First Lutheran would no longer be First Lutheran."

A previous version of this article said Ignite Philanthropy helped secure funding. 

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