First Christian lands $500,000 grant for tower work

A crane is used to inspect the tower at First Christian Church in Columbus in 2018. Mike Wolanin | The Republic

The National Park Service’s Save America’s Treasures program has awarded First Christian Church in Columbus a $500,000 grant to for the overall $2.4 million project repair the structural integrity of its tower.

Project organizers declined to say how close the grant puts them to their needed total.

The 166-foot tower has been one piece of the overall First Christian refurbishing effort since fundraising began for work on the church in 2017. A project to repair the church’s skylight was completed in 2018.

Plus, some structural repairs were made in the church’s courtyard.

The church, designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen and completed in 1942, began the city’s storied commitment to Modernist architecture and was among the first modern-style churches in the country. The building was designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 2001.

“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 U.S. Rep. Greg Pence, R-Ind., said in a statement. “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.”

In December 2019, Pence authored a letter of support for the Columbus First Christian Church’s grant application. Pence also gave a speech on the House of Representatives floor in December of 2019 urging support for this grant to the Columbus landmark.

Locally, the Columbus Area Visitors Center has buoyed support for the capital campaign for the restoration. Erin Hawkins, the visitors center’s director of marketing, mentioned that the center’s promotion is understandable “especially given that First Christian Church is the building where the Columbus architecture story began. It would be devastating to the integrity of Saarinen’s design if we were to lose the tower.

“First Christian is integral to the way we tell the community’s story.”

Some of the tower project has been delayed while organizers have raised money for the effort, including a renewed push that began in the spring just before the COVID-19 pandemic changed community needs.

Jeff Logston is chairman of the First Christian Capital Projects Fundraising Committee.

“We’re thrilled have the project recognized nationally,” Logston said, adding that it further fuels a continuing community fundraising campaign.

Plus, he said the committee is grateful for support it has received from the church congregation, Pence, local architect Louis Joyner and Eric Frey with Southern Indiana Housing and Community Development Corp., the grant’s fiscal agent.

“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,” Logston said. “Obviously with COVID, and the fact that the church congregation was not able to meet together for some time (in the spring) there understandably been other priorities that bubbled to the surface.”

Logston said more fundraising has to be done before any long-term repair work begins. Joyner said renewed physical work could be done either in spring 2021 or the following spring.

“It’s very weather dependent,” Joyner said.

Details must be added to preliminary design work from Joyner and a team of engineers, and the project then must be open to bids.

Two years ago, an Indianapolis firm examined every segment of the tower and did partial, temporary repairs to fix water leaks. Cracks in the tower’s mortar joints have allowed rain to get in and cause damage.

The top one-third of the tower shows the most damage, experts said.

The Save America’s Treasures grant program was established in 1998 and first awarded grants in 1999 to help preserve nationally significant historic properties and collections. Since 1999, there have been more than 4,000 requests for funding totaling more than $1.54 billion. More than $315,700,000 has been awarded to more than 1,300 projects.

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You can donate to the repair project for the First Christian Church tower by going to

The Columbus Area Visitors Center video on this webpage was created in support of the fundraising campaign for the tower.