First (Christian) things first: New group forms to protect city’s original Modernist building

A new group has formed to help refurbish Columbus’ first Modernist architectural work, a National Historic Landmark.

Friends of First Christian Church Architecture will unveil the first part of a plan today at the group’s first public meeting and invite the community to help restore the 75-year-old structure — designed by noted Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen with help from his son, Eero Saarinen.

The meeting will be from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the church, 531 Fifth St., and is open to all.

The new group is a partnership with First Christian Church, Landmark Columbus and Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County. It will focus on maintaining the architectural and design elements of the church. But it is distinctly separate from First Christian’s ministry or faith-related mission, according to organizers.

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The first step is an effort to restore the church’s deteriorating and leaking skylight, at an estimated cost of $160,908. The skylight is a feature that the elder Saarinen used to bring in natural light especially on the cross at the front of the sanctuary, according to organizers.

First Christian is contributing $50,000 for the skylight project, enough to repair the leaks. The skylight has been given the top priority in a list of repairs because water leaks inside the church every time it rains, a few years ago damaging part of the church’s top-of-the-line organ pipes, requiring $120,000 to repair, said Steve Wiggins, chair of the church elders.

The church first began wrestling with needed repairs more than two years ago, Wiggins said.

Their work includes a 100-page report from September 2014 from local architect and consultant Louis Joyner with help from structural engineer Jim Lewis. Wiggins estimated that current needed work, probably spread over a few years, perhaps would top $1 million.

Alan Gilbert, a First Christian trustee and chairman of the Friends advisory board, highlighted the skylight work’s importance.

“The skylight is a signature part of the sanctuary, and we are reaching out to the broader community to help us rehabilitate it in an excellent way,” Gilbert said.

A key part of the rehabilitation of any of First Christian’s physical structure stretches beyond mere repair but restoring the Saarinens’ original design, Wiggins said.

He will outline at today’s meeting the planned skylight work — a project that will include installing a system of electronic blinds to allow the church to close the skylight at points during worship services when a video screen is used.

Wiggins pointed out that First Christian’s limited budget means that doing all the needed repairs in the most cost-effective way “would mean that we eventually would have to sacrifice the architectural integrity of the building.”

Wiggins said the elders never wanted to do that.

Now, with the new group and the public’s help, the building can retain all the Saarinens’ vision and grandeur, as Wiggins sees it.

The fund will be ongoing “so we can continue to address various issues as they come up,” Heritage Fund President and CEO Tracy Souza said.

The 9,000 people who took the architecture bus tour last year saw First Christian’s assets firsthand, said Erin Hawkins, marketing director for the Columbus Area Visitors Center.

“And we know there are countless other people who wander in there,” she said.

Wiggins pointed out that the church, with an average weekly worship attendance of 700 to 800 people, spends more than $200,000 annually on maintenance of the facilities and utilities.

However, if the church got no financial help, it eventually would be unable to adequately restore First Christian’s much-heralded tower to its original condition, Wiggins said.

That’s partly because work is expensive and partly because the need is not linked to direct faith-related ministry.

But Wiggins said he and the elders clearly understand the campanile’s local, national and international importance in the world of design. So do others.

“It’s very deeply woven into the fabric of our community,” Hawkins said of the tower. “And I think it’s one of the greatest icons of the Columbus skyline. And this is another reason why starting this fund is so very important.”

The Visitors Center already has shown its belief in that.

Last year, when the center earned the Servaas Award from Indiana Landmarks for historic preservation efforts, center leaders donated the $2,000 prize to the already-planned First Christian refurbishing cause.

A brief, optional tour of the church will conclude today’s meeting.

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Friends of First Christian Church Architecture is operated by an advisory board consisting of seven members — four from the church and three from the community.

The president and CEO of Heritage Fund serves in an ex-officio capacity. Heritage Fund is the fiscal agent for the effort and is therefore able to receive tax-deductible donations for the sanctuary skylight rehabilitation project.

Inaugural members of the Friends of First Christian Church Architecture are:

  • Frank Clark — Church member
  • Alan Gilbert — Church board of trustees, advisory committee chair
  • Jon Reynolds — Church outgoing elder and trustee
  • Steve Wiggins — Chair of church elders
  • Mark Dollase — Member of Indiana Landmarks
  • Steve Forster — Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. and Columbus Area Visitors Center tour guide
  • Richard McCoy — Director of Landmark Columbus
  • Tracy Souza — President and CEO of The Heritage Fund — the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County

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One purpose of the Friends of First Christian Church Architecture group is to encourage the public’s support and help in raising money to repair, refurbish and maintain design and architectural elements of the church. That currently ranges from a deteriorating and leaking skylight to crumbling concrete in the walkway area spanning the courtyard.

To make a donation, go to and click the donate button in middle of page. Under existing organizations/funds, type “Friends of First Christian Church Architecture,” then find it on the drop-down menu and click. Fill in a total amount and other information, then click “submit donation.”

Other information and donations: 812-376-7772

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What: Meeting to announce the purpose and mission of Friends of First Christian Church Architecture and its partnership with key community players to work with the public to restore and maintain the 75-year-old First Christian Church, the city’s first architecturally significant building

When: 5:30 p.m. today

Where: First Christian Church, 531 Fifth St. in Columbus

Details: The program will feature a historical overview of the First Christian Church facility by Meredith Parker, a discussion about the effectiveness of friends organizations by David Frederick of Indiana Landmarks, and details of the sanctuary skylight rehabilitation project from First Christian’s Steve Wiggins.

Information: 812-376-7772 or