Divine Inspiration: New Uses for Old Churches

Before the turn of the century, the compact nature and density of urban areas meant there was a church on every corner. Cincinnati was no exception, laying claim to some of the region's most glorious historic churches in its first neighborhoods.

But suburban expansion and the resultant decline of urban centers sent parishioners further away from cities, leaving behind these hulking tributes of devotion. Falling victim to neglect, many were decommissioned, sitting dormant and waiting for the next generation of caretakers.

Enter a bunch of resourceful Cincinnatians past and present who found creative ways to inject renewed spirit into these community anchors.

St. Paul's in Pendleton was rescued by the Verdin Bell Company who converted the 160 year old church into its corporate headquarters and event center; St. Pius in South Cumminsville houses Working In Neighborhoods, a social service agency, community center and housing, and the Third Protestant Memorial Church in Clifton was reopened as an Urban Outfitters adjacent to University of Cincinnati's campus in 2002.

Soapbox takes a look at four churches that are also finding new life as a recording studio, boutique hotel, arts center/concert venue, and one project just waiting to happen. These are just some of the innovative approaches Cincinnatians are taking to preserve and reimagine their historic houses of worship.

The Monastery

"I had been itching for a big room to record in, doing more recording with live bands. Then this place showed up," says engineer and recording artist, Ric Hordinski.

The 'place' was an abandoned Episcopal church in Walnut Hills. Built in 1906, it hosted a variety of congregations before sitting vacant for two years. Hordinski says the building had "really good sounding rooms" but was in horrible shape when he first went through it.

"There was some kind of shenanigans with the congregation and the pastor. It looked like they had had church the past Sunday, the pastor's notes were on the pulpit, and they had walked out and never come back."

Hordinski purchased the building and immediately began repairs, including replacing the roof. He estimates he has spent "tens and tens of thousands" but was able to leverage an empowerment grant to offset some of his costs.

Hordinski dubbed his new studio "The Monastery", and has since recorded numerous local and national artists including his former bandmates in Over the Rhine, the Pomegranates, and a live disc with east coast folk artist David Wilcox. Sub Pop recording artist, Daniel Martin Moore, a Northern Kentucky native and touring mate of Hordinski's, held his CD release show at the Monastery this winter. Hordinski says the church's acoustics can't be reproduced in a more traditional recording studio.

"I enjoy recording in non-traditional spaces. An old school studio would be acoustically dead. But if you like a big, open kind of sound, churches can be pretty good," he says.

Hordinski has also turned the space into a community hub: every other Monday he hosts a nonprofit community group, the Walnut Hills Fellowship that provides a communal dinner for those who have recently moved to the neighborhood.

Through Fire and Back: Old St. George

Built in 1873 and on the National Register of Historic Places, Old St. George last hosted a congregation in 1993. Thereafter it was used sparingly as a community center, bookstore, and event space, even hosting the popular Cincinnati Entertainment Awards. A prime location at the gateway to UC, a developer offered more than a million dollars to buy the church to demolish it for a Walgreen's several years ago. Clifton Heights Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation (CHCURC) intervened and purchased the building from UC in 2006 for $400,000.

"We didn't have a plan at the time, when we bought the building the goal was to save it," says CHCURC director, Matt Bourgeois. "We explored taking the volume of the church space and making it office space. We talked about retail functions like a book or sporting goods store that could use volume, none of which were deemed viable."

Then came the fire in 2008 that destroyed the church's two prominent spires.

Since the fire, CHCURC has focused on the restoration of Old St. George and construction of an adjacent boutique hotel on the parking lot beside the church. The church would retain its expansive open space by serving as the events center for the hotel, hosting receptions, conferences, and a neighborhood restaurant and bar.

"We're hoping that the general public would also see it as a community space," Bourgeois says.

So far CHCURC has raised about $25,000 towards predevelopment funding with commitments from some of the larger community organizations and planning support from UC's Niehoff Urban Studio. Over the next three to six months they'll replace the roof and gutters with funding provided by the City's community development department. Bourgeois says the roof will be done with slate with the goal of getting historic tax credits. In total, he estimates the project will cost $15 million dollars, including construction of the 80 room hotel.

Bourgeois says that one of its partners in the project, Paran Management Company, operates the Glidden House in Cleveland - an impressive mansion built in 1910 - as a full-service boutique hotel on the campus of Case Western Reserve University. Like Glidden, Old St. George won't host a chain hotel. Bourgeois says Paran will bring in a boutique operator for the hotel, which will be re-branded as "St. George House."

Thinking Out of the Box

It was fate that brought Teddy Aitkins, Manny Hernandez and Sky White to the First German Reformed Church in the West End. Seeking a building to house a performing venue, they had already looked at and expressed interest in another space when they learned about the long vacant church from OTR Adopt's, Danny Klingler.

"I drove over and we were shocked. From the first time we laid eyes we knew. Aesthetically it's one of the most pleasing things I've seen, from the inside and out," Aitkins says.

Aitkins and Hernandez are experienced developers who own several properties in town. White plays with Foxy Shazam, a local band that broke into the national scene in the past year (if you watched NFL games this season, chances are you heard one of their songs) and has significant music contacts throughout the country. They plan on combining their talents to turn the 1850's era church into a live music venue, arts center and children's music school. Hernandez says what really sealed the deal was the uniqueness of the space.

"We knew if we opened up in any space we would be just another live venue. Another box. But when we saw the church we knew that this would be different, and it will stand out. The other buildings couldn't compare."

They estimate the rehabilitation will cost $300,000 to $500,000 and take about two to three years to complete. Only a few short months into their plan, they're already attracting national interest from an outside investor. An East Coast restaurateur has visited the space - Hernandez says the layout of the church is similar to his original concept in New York, which includes a live music venue as well.

And they're also getting a hand from a talented collective of locals. They've been in touch with stained glass artist, Casey Horn, a P&G'er who has offered to help recreate some of the church's broken stained glass windows. In addition, they're getting guidance from architect Scott Hand. Hand, a 2004 DAAP grad, is originally from Cincinnati, but spent several years working in Chicago with Morris Architects Planners - a firm that specializes in performing arts facilities - before moving back last fall.

Hand worked on the rehabilitation of several Chicago landmarks into performing arts venues including as project architect on the Theatre-on-the-Lake. News of the local group and their work on the church in the West End got his attention. Hand will help them address everything from how to insulate a cavernous structure, to dealing with the sound challenges electric amplification presents in an otherwise acoustically sound space.

"It's extremely well suited to what they want to do. It's going to take a lot of updating and renovation work to make it something they can really use, but the bones and space is there," Hand says.

He's also there to share his own personal experiences about what he says can be a challenging, frustrating experience.

"There is going to be a certain point where you say 'let's tear it down, it's easier' but there's such a big sense of accomplishment that helps keep the character of the neighborhood together, and the sustainability of it."

Hernandez and Aitkins, who is looking to move into the neighborhood, agree. A recent cleanup effort drew significant support from outside the community as well as community members who stopped by to wish them well. They're thankful for the support, and understand the significant role they can play in the neighborhood's revitalization.

"People grew up in this church, had block parties here. This church means a lot to this community," Hernandez says.

The Project

St. Paul's German Evangelical Church at 15th and Race in Over-the-Rhine was founded by a German congregation who split off from another equally impressive church a few blocks over at 12th and Elm. After St. Paul's was decommissioned it hosted a pharmacy on the first floor before drifting into neglect. The City bought it in 1985 and provided initial stabilization, but years of inactivity continued to weaken the church's structure.

From 3CDC's former offices on the 14th floor of the Kroger building, Vice President Chad Munitz had a panoramic view of the neighborhood where much of their development work is currently being undertaken. However, what they could see from that lofty perch last summer alarmed him.

St. Paul's roof was sagging dramatically and the approaching winter posed a significant threat. The building's rotting trusses made the interior off limits. To raze the building would leave a block long empty lot though - something Munitz says wasn't considered.

"What's great about OTR is its not 'Anywhere, America,' and having that fabric is important. You can't redo this, it's why this neighborhood has been and will continue to be exciting is the infrastructure from 150 years ago."

Work on the church is proceeding from the outside utilizing multi-story cranes to peel the roof back to survey the damage and remediate the structural issues. Munitz estimates it will cost $600,000-750,000 to make it secure and safe - the city of Cincinnati is contributing $300,000 towards stabilization.

A couple of short blocks away from the church is 3CDC's new headquarters and their work around Washington Park, which is scheduled to reopen in 2012. In addition, the church is directly across from what Munitz termed "phase five" of 3CDC's OTR development plan, including an extension of the Westfalen condos currently under construction across the street. Development of the church, which Munitz says would be market driven, could happen over the next five to seven years depending on the adaptive reuse.

Following a pitch to the public last summer, 3CDC communications assistant Christy Samad said they received a number of ideas for the space, most centered on a fitness/athletic concept or a bar. Munitz says an athletic complex could be doable.

"You could convert it to a gym fairly quick. Gym's are fairly affordable to build out."

Photography by Scott Beseler.
First German reformed church
The Monastery
St George before the fire
St. George's day after the fire
First German reformed church exterior
First German reformed church interior
St. Paul's German Evangelical Church exterior
St. Paul's German Evangelical interior (Provided by Sara Bedinghaus at 3CDC)

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