Saarinen-designed church in Columbus, Indiana, secures federal grant for repairs

A Wish, Granted

Saarinen-designed church in Columbus, Indiana, secures federal grant for repairs

The Eliel Saarinen-designed campanile at First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana. (Jeff Hart/Flickr)

The church that largely kicked off the tradition of erecting modern, envelope-pushing-for-the-time civic buildings designed by a stable of international architects in Columbus, Indiana, from the early 1940s through the late-1960s and beyond, has received a $500,000 from the National Park Service (NPS) to repair its iconic bell tower that has suffered significant water damage over the years. The estimated total cost of repairing the 160-foot-tall bell tower of First Christian Church is $2.4 million. While the federal funds, which come from the NPS-administered Save America’s Treasures grant program, obviously won’t cover the entire bill, the repair-earmarked grant is a very much a solid start.

“Though we’re still a long way from the finish line, and we still need a lot of community support to get us there, this award definitely gives the project an encouraging boost,” Jeff Logston, chairman of the First Christian fundraising committee, told the Associated Press in a recent news article republished by Indiana Public Media.

Inaugurated in 1942 as one of the first modernist churches in the United States, First Christian Church (originally the Tabernacle Church of Christ) was designed by Finnish-American architect Eliel Saarinen with his more well-known son, Eero Saarinen, overseeing the building’s interiors along with Charles Eames. As mentioned, it was the first contemporary-style building in Columbus and is the oldest of the city’s seven modernist landmarks listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Three of those buildings—the Irwin Union Bank (1954), the Miller House (1957), and North Christian Church (1964)—were designed by the younger Saarinen, the last one completed posthumously.

vintage postcard of modernist First Christian Church
Vintage postcard of the former Tabernacle Church of Christ in Columbus, Indiana. (Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection #73839/public domain/Wikimedia Commons)

While its wealth of modernist buildings have put the relatively small city of Columbus on the map and cemented its reputation as one of America’s top architectural tourism destinations, its multitude of mid-century landmarks aren’t preserved in amber. Like any other building pushing 80, the First Christian Church, its soaring campanile largely emblematic of the city’s architectural legacy, is in need of repairs.

Per the AP, an initial round of sealing-centric repairs to the boxy brick bell tower in 2018 helped to halt leaks during heavy rains although, during the process, a team of structural engineers found a more significant source of water damage in the form of cracks in the tower’s mortar joints. More substantial planned work would help to execute additional repairs and ensure the structural integrity of the bell tower for years to come.

“There are very significant cracks in the mortar joints, allowing water to get in,” Frank Clark, a member of the Friends of First Christian Church Architecture board, told The Republic at the time. “And then you have the added problem of the water freezing and thawing.”

While the church’s fundraising committee continues to move ahead with securing the cash needed to executive repair and restoration work from altruistic members of the community, Indiana Congressman Greg Pence, brother of Vice President and Columbus native Mike Pence, has been instrumental in helping to secure federal grants for the project.

“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,” said Greg Pence in a statement announcing that the church had secured the half-million in NPS funding. “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.”

Since the Save America’s Treasures program awarded its first grant in 1999, over $315,700,000 has been given to more than 1,300 different preservation projects across the country.