FIRST CHRISTIAN CHURCH: Tower effort lands another half-million grant

The fundraising campaign for the iconic First Christian Church tower restoration has landed its second half-million-dollar grant in 10 months — and a renewed kickoff for the public financial campaign begins at 4 p.m. at an event Wednesday outdoors at the church.

Organizers have made clear that the campaign needs much more support within the next few months.

The overall effort to repair numerous cracks in the 79-year-old Eliel Saarinen-designed tower is expected to cost $2.4 million. In October 2018, a team of inspectors found significant cracks in the mortar joints of the 166-foot-tall tower.

The campaign’s previous $500,000 in August came from from the National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures program.

Now the Jeffris Family Foundation has awarded a $500,000 Challenge Grant to the Friends of First Christian Church Architecture, a group that is administered by Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, to support the restoration of the church’s iconic clock tower.

The Jeffris Family Foundation Challenge Grant provides a $1 match for every $2 that is pledged to the project. The grant is designed to spur an additional $1 million in private gifts and pledges toward the tower’s restoration. The Jeffris Family Foundation is based in Janesville, Wisconsin, and focuses on projects of national significance in smaller communities in the Midwest.

"We carefully select National Historic Landmarks as foundation projects," said Thomas Jeffris, foundation president.

Its first grant was in 1994, and this is the 11th. First Christian became a National Historic Landmark in 2001.

Jeff Logston, chairman of the First Christian Capital Projects Fundraising Committee, said local fundraisers are "humbled and grateful for the acknowledgement and support … . Their generosity is overwhelming.”

Tracy Souza, president of the Heritage Fund, acknowledged that the Jeffris Family Foundation’s help is huge.

"Having the support of a prestigious foundation that has done so much to preserve cultural heritage across the Midwest is quite an honor and reinforces the importance of saving community treasures like the First Christian Church tower," Souza said.

Organizers hope to raise the needed funds by this fall and be able to begin repairs in early 2022. 

Columbus Mayor Jim Lienhoop mentioned that the tower, built in 1942 with the church, is part of the city’s architectural legacy.

"Not only was it the first Modern building in Columbus designed by an important architect, but its location within our downtown and its relationship to the I.M. Pei-designed library across the street make it particularly significant," he said.

Other community partners coming alongside First Christian Church to help with the effort include the Columbus Area Visitors Center, Landmark Columbus Foundation, Indiana Landmarks, and local architect Louis Joyner. Joyner, in fact, has worked with a crew of structural engineers from Arsee Engineers Inc. of Fishers to plan repairs. He also coordinated the application for the previous $500,000 from the Save America’s Treasures program.

A team made temporary fixes to water leaks in October 2018.

Columbus Area Visitors Center Executive Director Karen Niverson highlighted the tower’s significance.

“Access to First Christian Church is one of the most frequent requests by journalists and visiting scholars," Niverson said. "It’s one of the first stops on our architecture tours. It is impossible to understate its significance in how we share the Columbus architecture story with visitors to the community.”

The nearly 80-year-old tower has seen significant repairs at least four times, the last project being in 1976. However, the tower has reached the point of needing major repair work which will include substantial reconstruction of the top one-third of the structure to maintain this component of the First Christian Church campus.

“Earlier repairs, though extensive, did not always address some of the fundamental reasons for the necessary repair," Joyner said. "The proposed project intends to do so, in a durable way that will ensure the tower’s stability for many years to come.”

Richard McCoy, executive director of the Landmark Columbus Foundation, commented on the project teamwork.

“We are so glad to have our organization collaborating with so many partners to help care for this iconic Columbus cultural resource,” McCoy said. “I think this community is up to the challenge to support this important restoration project."

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A Save Our Tower campaign launch event is planned for 4 pm on Wednesday at First Christian Church, 531 5th St in downtown Columbus.

The public is invited to learn more about the tower, the needed repairs, and how to support the effort.

Following brief remarks, a guided architecture tour of First Christian Church will be provided by J. Irwin Miller

Architecture Program Director T. Kelly Wilson.

Those wishing to make a contribution to the Friends of First Christian Architecture fund should go