By Jim Nieman
First Christian Church of Columbus, Ind., recently received a big boost in its ongoing effort to fund repairs to its eye-catching and architecturally significant tower.
The National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures program awarded First Christian a $500,000 grant for the estimated $2.4 million project to repair the structural integrity of the 166-foot tower.
“We’re thrilled for the award and for the project being recognized nationally,” said Jeff Logston, chairman of the First Christian Capital Projects Fundraising Committee. Still, he said, “we have more work to do. We’re going to need the community to help us get there [to the fundraising goal].”
A ‘MODERN’ MASTERWORK
To the uninitiated person arriving in Columbus, the sight of the brick-and-mortar clock tower is likely the first hint that they are entering a place that is quite extraordinary. The Midwestern city of about 45,000 has approximately 60 Modern architecture buildings of note, of which seven are classified as National Historic Landmarks, including First Christian Church.
In fact, First Christian Church—finished in 1942—is where Columbus’ Modern architecture story began. It was the product of Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen (assisted by his son, Eero, who later designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis), and was one of the first churches in the nation built in the Modern architectural style.
Eliel Saarinen was recruited for the project by J. Irwin Miller, then a member of First Christian, who for several decades led of Cummins Engine Company, now called Cummins Inc., a Fortune 500 company. Over the years, the Cummins Foundation, established in 1954, has paid architectural fees for several significant new construction projects in the city.
First Christian Church’s building was completed 78 years ago, and so it should be no surprise it has begun showing signs of its age.
In 2014-15 the church hired an architectural engineering firm that performed a comprehensive review of the building and created a 110-page book detailing necessary repairs and other concerns. From that, the church developed a list of priorities. At the top of the list was the sanctuary skylight, which had serious water damage and was leaking. The skylight was repaired in 2018 at a cost of $166,000.
Other concerns are on the list, but the iconic tower likely carries the biggest price tag. An extensive assessment of the tower took place two years ago, and some temporary repairs were made at that time.
Over time, cracks in the tower’s mortar joints have allowed rain to seep in and cause damage—most severely to the upper one-third. The tower project will require “four to six months in preparation for construction before it [the actual work] can start in full,” Logston said. Repairs to the tower will take about nine months, so that will necessitate that work start in the spring. While it is possible work could start in spring 2021, he said, a 2022 start is more likely, especially considering more fundraising is needed.
A NECESSARY PARTNERSHIP
Church officials explained in our 2018 article that both they and the city want to maintain the historical integrity of the building, but it comes at a cost the church cannot bear alone. For one thing, many of the needed repairs have no direct bearing on the quality of worship at the church. The skylight and the tower—though key elements of Saarinen’s design—are examples of this.
And so the church strives to be a good caretaker of the building by working in partnership with the city, the community, and organizations to help fund certain projects necessary to maintaining it. The church seeks to be upfront about what it can and cannot do. The $2.4 million tower repair is simply one project it cannot do alone.
And the ongoing situation with COVID-19 has not helped matters, Logston said, although general fund giving has remained respectable, even during the more than three months the church did not meet for in-person worship. The church must remain primarily focused on its spiritual mission.
“You start to understand your priorities” during such a time as the coronavirus, said Logston, who is on sabbatical from serving as an elder with First Christian. “Just trying to get back to live meeting and keeping the church and its mission central is most important.”
That’s why receiving the $500,000 matching grant was so key.
“This grant helps us from a community recognition standpoint,” Logston said. It shows the community that the church is a serious player in this—that the church is doing their part to maintain their property.
(Click here to view a tower fundraising video created by the Columbus Visitor’s Center. The video features local architect Larry Joyner, a good friend of the church who drafted the grant application.)
SOME BIG-NAME HELP
The grant application received a boost from U.S. Rep. Greg Pence, a Republican who represents the district—and the brother of Vice President Mike Pence—who authored a letter in support and then spoke about it on the House floor in December 2019. Greg Pence is from Columbus.
“The First Christian Church is an architectural gem in the Columbus community and it is our duty to help preserve National Historic Landmarks such as this,” Greg Pence said in a statement. “The Save America’s Treasures Grant program helps preserve and conserve our nation’s beautiful history. Providing this funding will allow the needed support to help repair and restore the First Christian Church tower.”
Logston said the goal is to make repairs that will move the church well into the future.
“We don’t want to take on anything that will need to be redone in the next 10, 15, 20 years,” he said. Rather, the goal is to make improvement that last 75 to 100 years.
Jim Nieman serves as managing editor of Christian Standard.
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See our previous articles about First Christian Church.
“Acclaimed Church Building Copes with Aging” (Nov. 14, 2018)
“First Christian: A ‘Modern’ Masterwork” (Nov. 14, 2018)
“First Christian’s Skylight Project” (a photo essay; Nov. 14, 2018)