Tall order: Repair landmark First Christian tower

Partial repair work has been done to seal water leaks from rain and damage to the iconic 166-foot First Christian Church tower, according to the architect and leaders spearheading the project.

A crew of structural engineers from Arsee Engineers Inc. of Fishers on Tuesday examined the 76-year-old Modern edifice, designed by Eliel Saarinen, with the help of a crane and a dangling basket to get them high along the campanile’s brick-and-mortar surface.

Most of the damage was near the top, said Frank Clark, a member of the Friends of First Christian Church Architecture board and a retired Cummins Inc. director of facilities. Clark rode in the basket with the engineers to the top of the edifice to see for himself.

“There are very significant cracks in the mortar joints, allowing water to get in,” Clark said as he watched the engineering crew work while a tour group from the Columbus Area Visitors Center looked on nearby. “And then you have the added problem of the water freezing and thawing.”

[sc:text-divider text-divider-title=”Story continues below gallery” ]Click here to purchase photos from this gallery

Steve Wiggins, another member of the Friends committee, said these repairs are “just to get the tower safely though the winter,” and that more substantial work would come later.

This is phase two of a multi-pronged plan — separate from the faith element of the church’s body of believers — to restore significant parts of the building and grounds that marked the beginning of the city’s international fame for Modern buildings by world-renowned architects. It also is part of a continuing plan to keep the structure in good shape through the years to come.

The church and the accompanying tower made headlines in publications such as Time magazine as the first and most expensive structure of its time.

The Indiana Landmarks organization held its Preserving Historic Places Indiana Statewide Historic Preservation Conference at the church in April, when the keynote speaker provided statistical research about the effects of historic preservation and historical districts on cities.

“It’s such an iconic building,” Richard McCoy said in August, when the most recent repairs at First Christian Church began.

McCoy leads Landmark Columbus, an organization dedicated to preserving and maintaining Columbus’ architectural treasures.

Columbus architect Louis Joyner, a consultant on the church repairs, said an epoxy is being injected into cracks to seal them to keep water out. Joyner said he was uncertain of the exact cost of such work, but said it would be minimal for such an effort.

Joyner pointed out that the clear plastic panels on the tower have helped keep out rain somewhat.

“But it (the tower) also needs to breathe,” Joyner said. “The brick screens that were there before the panels were installed (in 1974) allowed for that breathing.”

The exterior grill of the tower originally was open in 1942 to allow the sound of the chimes that were played inside the church to be heard by people on the street. The 28 panels that now fill in that part of the structure were added as seals against outside moisture.

Besides the moisture problems, some of the other panels in the tower are cracked, church leaders have said.

Rainwater seepage also was the cause for considerable damage with the just-repaired and paid-for church sanctuary skylight. That marked the first action of the Friends of First Christian Church Architecture board, announced in January 2017.

The last time the tower has undergone external repairs was in 2015 after storms blew out one of the plastic panels. But, internally, new fans were installed in the past few years to help battle damaging moisture, Wiggins said.

Tracy Souza is president and chief operating officer of The Heritage Fund — the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County and a member of the Friends board. The Heritage Fund has served as the fiscal agent for the Friends group. Souza mentioned that the board will be ready to fund-raise again when that time comes.

“We’ve got the relationships and the structure in place,” Souza said. “And we’ve got things in place that we didn’t have before (the skylight work). And we’ve got the public’s trust.”

Joyner has said it would be tough to estimate the cost of long-term repairs since it depends on various possibilities. However, the Friends board leaders have said that, besides local fund-raising, they would investigate the possibility of financial assistance from state preservation groups.

[sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”How you can help” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

Donations to Friends of First Christian Church Architecture will go directly to rehabilitation of the church tower and can be made in person at The Heritage Fund, 538 Franklin St. in Columbus, or online at heritagefundbc.org.

[sc:pullout-text-end][sc:pullout-title pullout-title=”First Christian Church” ][sc:pullout-text-begin]

Built: 1942

Designed as: The first contemporary building in Columbus and one of the first churches in the United States to be built in a Modern architectural style.

Designed by: Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen

Supporters: Prominent among the congregation at the time First Christian was built was the noted Irwin-Sweeney-Miller family, who lived in the house diagonally across the street.

Building features: Glass-fronted main hall, with a tower and bridge section. Interior details such as light fixtures, screen and furniture were designed by Saarinen’s son Eero Saarinen (who would later design the North Christian Church in Columbus) and Charles Eames.

Recognition: The building was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 2001 and has been a favorite on the city’s architectural tour.