Funding has been secured for the first step in refurbishing the 75-year-old structure that launched Columbus’ Modernist architectural legacy, with work at First Christian Church expected to begin in the spring.

Architect Louis Joyner, who with structural engineer Jim Lewis first completed a study of the building’s needs in September 2014, will be project designer.

First Christian, built in 1942, was the first example of Modern architecture in a city that now has 78 such examples, according to architect Steve Risting, who has authored a book on the city’s Modernism.

First Christian Church, Friends of First Christian Church Architecture and other supporters have reached their fundraising goal of $160,908 to restore a skylight leaking rainwater into the church sanctuary.

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The building, at 531 Fifth St. downtown, is on the National Register of Historic Places and was one of the first churches in the United States to be built in a contemporary style.

Richard McCoy of Landmark Columbus, the entity charged with caring for the city’s art and architectural legacy, calls First Christian Church “extraordinarily important, not only in Columbus, but in the world.”

Joyner calls it “a great example” of the Finnish designer Eliel Saarinen’s work anywhere.

Hitting the first fundraising goal in 10 months time is significant, organizers say, showing that local residents value the detailed design work of such luminaries as Saarinen, along with his son, Eero Saarinen.

The skylight work will keep the elder Saarinen’s original design, but with an electronic feature for the skylight to be shaded to sunlight as necessary during video presentations.

Church leaders had examined the idea of removing the skylight, which would have cost slightly more than $30,000, said Steve Wiggins, who originally led the project when it was announced in late January.

The skylight is a feature the elder Saarinen used to focus natural light on the limestone cross at the front of the sanctuary. Alan Gilbert, chairman of the advisory board for Friends of First Christian Church Architecture, has called the skylight a signature part of the sanctuary.

“We put it off for a long time trying to decide what to do — and to give us time to raise money,” Wiggins said.

A few years ago, rainwater damaged part of the church’s top-of-the-line organ pipes, and cost $120,000 to repair the instrument parts, Wiggins said. Photos show that the water also has damaged the church ceiling, some of the windows on the church’s east side, and stained some areas of the floor.

Just for routine building maintenance, the church spends about $200,000 a year, Wiggins said.

The congregation, with 700 to 800 weekly attendees, donated $123,000 for the skylight work – more than 70 percent of the project cost, he said.

Other contributors helping with donations through The Heritage Fund — the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, totaling $25,000. Help also came from an in-kind contribution of $25,000 from the Kenny Glass Inc. firm.

The amount raised exceeds what is needed for the this phase of the project. Excess funds will be used for other elements of the church’s renovation, Gilbert said.

The Friends of First Christian Church, separate from the spiritual ministry of the body of believers, was established in partnership with First Christian Church, Landmark Columbus, Indiana Landmarks, a statewide preservation organization, and the Heritage Fund, acting as fiscal agent for money donated to the project.

Richard McCoy sees the successful skylight campaign from a big-picture perspective.

“This shows just how much the First Christian congregation cares about the building,” McCoy said. “Beyond that, it also shows that we’ve been able to effectively bring in strong partners for the work.”

McCoy calls the skylight effort the single biggest achievement of Landmark Columbus since it was launched in 2015 as a program of the Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County.

By the numbers

10: Time in months for fund drive for skylight repair

$160,908: Cost to repair the skylight

$200,000: Approximate annual maintenance expenses at First Christian

$1 million-plus: Projection for total cost of all needed First Christian repairs, to be spread over time

First Christian background

Leadership of what was then Tabernacle Church of Christ in the late 1930s felt that design of a new church building should reflect the ideologies of the congregation. Further deliberation led to architect Eliel Saarinen, director of the Cranbrook Academy of Art.

In 1938, the world–renowned architect was convinced personally to take this commission by Elsie and Nettie Irwin Sweeney, prominent members of the Tabernacle congregation who were connected to the most influential families in Columbus. Although Eliel Saarinen had previously completed one church in Lithuania, he had refused ecclesiastical commissions in the U.S. because he thought that American churches were too theatrical.

Nettie Irwin Sweeney, the mother of later local industrialist and architectural giant J. Irwin Miller, assured Saarinen that the congregation’s aims were not grandiose. She wrote:

“Our town is small and there are all sorts of conditions of men. While we should like the church to be beautiful, we do not want the first reaction to be, ‘How much did the church cost?’ We want the poorest woman in town to feel at home there and be able to worship her god in those surroundings.”

Miller was among individuals who encouraged the church to consider a Modernist structure.

Soon after the building’s completion in 1942, Newsweek declared, “The style of the new Tabernacle is utterly unlike the 17 other churches in Columbus or, for that matter, in almost any other city in the world.”

Sources: Landmark Columbus, Columbus Area Visitors Center


Author photo
Brian Blair is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at or 812-379-5672.