Church moved by OTR steeple saga to resume demolition talks

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CINCINNATI (FOX19) — Those working to save an iconic Over-the-Rhine steeple from demolition have agreed to return to the negotiating table.

The news comes a day after protesters gathered outside Cincinnati City Hall on behalf of the First Lutheran Church, the latest installment in a confusing and laborious saga pitting church leaders against preservation advocates. .

Church leaders demanded that city officials issue the demolition permit for the tower, which they accused the city of refusing and without which the church congregation cannot resume normal services. They said they were ready to accept a “win-win” solution, quoting a statement from the city, “even if it means historic loss.”

Conservationists are less keen on the deal, arguing the tower can be saved for a fraction of the $3 million church leaders have been quoting for more than a year.

On Friday, it emerged the Tories had scored a victory by luring church leaders into city-led mediation.

“The city has indicated that it wants a ‘win-win’ solution for Early Lutherans and is advocating for the preservation of the church steeple. We share this goal and look forward to finding a solution that makes the tower safe and brings the First Lutheran Church congregation back to their beautiful church,” said OTR Adopt Founder and Executive Director Danny Klinger.

Built in 1895, the church provides a small-scale counterpoint to Music Hall across Washington Park. Its bell tower is visible throughout the neighborhood, emerging like a sentinel at the separation of walls and eaves.

But the tower has recently fallen into disrepair. A fall 2020 city study identified damage to the tower’s steel girders and raised concerns about the tower’s stability. An emergency demolition order followed in November 2020.

The first Lutheran congregation was forced out of the building pending demolition of the tower, which preservation advocates managed to delay in the hope of finding a solution.

Pastor Brian Furgeson explained that ideally the congregation would organize a year-long fundraising campaign, but the desire to return to the church for worship services motivated the church to side with the demolition.

Fgeson said if a community-led fundraising effort to save the tower is not successful by June 5, 2021 — a deadline that has come and gone — the church will proceed with its demolition. He cited an engineer’s initial report that pegged repair costs at around $2.5 million, which included tower repairs and the addition of seismic foundations.

The second inclusion is curious because seismic retrofitting is not required by Cincinnati’s building code and, according to preservation advocates, is atypical for historic restoration projects. Moreover, the damage to the tower was not caused by seismic activity, the region of which is little affected, but by water infiltration, load displacement and the normal deterioration of weathered masonry.

A spokesperson for the Cincinnati Preservation Association explains that the engineers behind this report “have been clear in pointing out that their professional opinion is based on factors other than the building code, that they made their recommendations. that additional bracing and deep foundation works are necessary because they consider them essential to ensure public safety.According to them, the risk factors result from the conditions of the original construction.

The church congregation then opted to add an elevator shaft and an ADA-accessible visitor center to the repair effort—the shaft providing structural support for the tower. It cost more than $3 million, according to the Cincinnati Preservation Association.

In August 2021, the CPA noted that the church had secured donations or pledges totaling $2.25 million, including $100,000 in CPA cash.

Around the same time, CPA and OTR Adopt funded a second engineering report. The report’s assessment notes that the tower’s structure is “in generally good condition and will require a limited number of repairs”. The author disagrees with the structural concerns raised in the first report, noting the lack of evidence of structural distress or “damage associated with wind or earthquake”.

A simpler repair catalog at a lower cost would be enough to save the tower, the report concludes.

OTR Adopt had a competitive construction bid based on the report’s findings, and the contractors were ready to start immediately. OTR Adopt also says it has commitments for the secured funds – $1.73 million – including costs for the first Lutheran to worship offsite (at the transept one block away) during construction as well as the debt service costs and the cost of hiring a project manager” so Pastor Brian can be released for ministry work. In addition, a plan has been considered to fund later phases of the project, including the additions to the ADA and the elevator shaft.

Church leadership reviewed the plan and on August 9 voted to proceed with demolition. Fgeson explained that the request involves “certain complex mechanisms” that the church cannot afford due to previous debts incurred during a $1.3 million facade restoration in 2016.

Preservation advocates responded on August 19 with a letter calling for a joint collaborative approach marrying the two engineering reports. The church leadership reportedly refused to respond.

The letter notes that “demolition agreements have been signed and permits have been obtained. Work should start any day now.

Six months later, the tower remains poised between the pressing threat of demolition and the promise of imminent repairs.

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