First Lutheran Church approaches the deadline to save their historic bell tower

At the turn of the 20th century, there were over a dozen large churches spread throughout the Over-the-Rhine neighborhood. These impressive, historic buildings still dot the streetscape, standing as iconic landmarks in the remaining infrastructure of the neighborhood.

Some are still functioning as churches; some have been repurposed for a different use.

Three of these historic churches stand on the streets surrounding the neighborhood’s Washington Park. In 2015, St. John’s Unitarian Church was restored into a venue space called The Transept. The other two churches still house congregations. One, the historic Nast Trinity United Methodist Church, now houses The Warehouse Church.

A few doors down the street is the First Lutheran Church.

First English Lutheran Church started in 1842. At the time, most of the churches in Over-the-Rhine worshipped in German, the predominant language of the neighborhood. But the people of their church thought there should be an English-speaking church that was more accessible to everyone and, so, First English Lutheran Church was born. (The church has since dropped the “English” from their name.)

First Lutheran Church’s building at 1208 Race Street opened in 1895. The original 2,000-pound Verdin bell still hangs in the bell tower, soaring over Washington Park.

But, in a few months’ time, this tower might be gone.

Over 125 years on Washington Park

First Lutheran has stood next to Washington Park for more than 125 years. But, when Pastor Brian Ferguson began his tenure at the church in 2014, the neighborhood and church were both in transition.

“My first month I was at the church,” he remembers, “the street was closed for the streetcar tracks to be laid.”

There were forty people, on average, at a Sunday service then. But he says the excitement of a new pastor is what drew people in. Overall, attendance was low. Like many churches in the neighborhood, the congregation was aging and shrinking.

Ferguson says much of his work those first few years was helping the congregation navigate the “massive amount” of change they were experiencing and discerning a path forward.

In the time since he arrived, Ferguson watched “a slow evolution of the community” both inside and outside the church doors. He’s welcomed 85 new members in seven years. Many of them are newer residents from the neighborhood.

“That’s a big shift for a small church,” he says.

As with many churches in the neighborhood, the task of maintaining their historic building has always been both a top priority and a significant challenge for First Lutheran Church. When Pastor Ferguson arrived, the church was already struggling with a lot of deferred maintenance.

A few years ago, he and his loyal, preservation-minded congregants started to chip away at repairs, working on the Race Street façade and then renovating a gallery space on their second level. They had more plans for renovating the building, including installing an elevator, but then COVID-19 hit the nation.

The challenge of the bell tower

Because of the pandemic, the church closed its doors in March of 2020 and started meeting across the street in Washington Park. Then, on July 28, they received bad news—the bell tower was structurally unsound and in need of urgent repairs.

While the church strategized about the bell tower, weighing the value of investing so many resources in their building and gathering funds to pay for repair, the City of Cincinnati was preparing an emergency demolition order. It was delivered to the church on November 10th.

The issue was suddenly very urgent. But saving First Lutheran’s bell tower is no small task. Repairs are estimated at over $3 million dollars.

During a pandemic, it didn’t seem prudent to initiate a massive fundraising campaign, so Pastor Ferguson says the church first worked behind the scenes to raise the funds. But, as the pandemic slowed this spring, they felt comfortable making their campaign public.

To date, First Lutheran Church has secured upwards of 2.25M in pledges and donations for saving the bell tower. The money is a mixture of the church’s own cash reserves, cash donations, tax credits, and foundation grants. Their funding partners include the Cincinnati Preservation Association, the Jacob G. Schmidlapp Trusts, OTR Adopt, and over 180 individual donors.

Even with these pledges and donations, the church is $950,000 short of the total cost. And the deadline is June 5th.

“Everyone’s working to find a path to save it,” Ferguson explains. “It’s a dream come true if this tower gets restored because of the partnerships and relationship that will come through this.”

Losing the bell tower would not be a death sentence for the church, Pastor Ferguson says. He trusts that his church is stable enough to survive the blow. But he does worry about what losing the iconic, looming tower could mean to the Over-the-Rhine community.

“To the people we serve in the community, the people on the margins,” he explains, “church is a symbol of the community and stability. This loss would be one more loss [for them].”

Before the pandemic, he says, their church building was bustling with life and 9 out of 10 of the people in the building were there for community and arts events, not for a church service. This was an integral part of the mission of First Lutheran Church.

“We’re serious about giving the space away,” he explains.

But the church has been empty for over a year.

Even now that COVID restrictions are lifting, with the emergency demolition order in place, neither the congregation nor the community can use the building.

First Lutheran Church won’t know what comes next until the fundraising deadline has passed, a few more repair quotes have come in, and the decision whether to demolish or repair has been made.

Regardless of the outcome, the church will be uprooted for at least a few more months while the work is done. After that, they’ll move forward again.

“We are deeply appreciative of everyone who’s stepped forward,” Pastor Ferguson says. “We are a vibrant church. If this fails, it’s not a sign of our failure.”

Are you interested in helping?

You can find information about First Lutheran Church’s fundraising campaign, including a link to make a donation, here.

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Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.