‘A good fit’: Strategic plan expected to say North Christian Church could become a library branch

Mike Wolanin | The Republic An interior view of North Christian Church in Columbus, Ind., Monday, Sept. 26, 2022.

The Bartholomew County Library Board is expected to consider a new strategic plan next month that could help pave the way for the library to open a branch at North Christian Church.

The strategic plan, which is still being finalized, is expected to include a facilities assessment that concludes that the library is currently “out of space” and that the Modernist church would be “a good fit” for growing the library’s services, said Bartholomew County Library Director Jason Hatton, who emphasized that “nothing has been decided.”

The church, located at 850 Tipton Lane on the north side of Columbus, laid off staff last year after nearly a decade of dwindling worship service. The congregation has since offered to donate the architecturally significant church to the library.

Currently, the church is owned by 850 Tipton LLC, according to public real estate records. Ownership was transferred to the company from the Columbus Capital Foundation in September 2022

Tracy Souza, president and CEO of the Heritage Fund – the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, is listed as the registered agent of 850 Tipton LLC, according to the Indiana Secretary of State’s Office.

The seven-member board is scheduled to meet Dec. 11 to consider the strategic plan. If the board votes to adopt the plan, conversations are expected to begin in January over whether the library will accept the donation, with a final decision potentially coming as soon as February, Hatton said.

“That facilities assessment says that we are out of space here in our location and that we are limited by our physical capacity at this point in time,” Hatton said. “So, we really cannot grow our services. We cannot have more impact if we don’t increase our physical locations, and so the analysis was that North Christian is a good fit for that. But the board has a lot more discussion to do about how they feel about that and whether we will move forward with it or not.”

Completed in 1964, North Christian Church is one of 43 structures in Indiana that have received the National Historic Landmark designation, according to the National Park Service. The six-side church with a sloping roof and a 192-foot spire with a gold-leaf cross was designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen, who also designed the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

The church was the last building designed by Saarinen, who died in 1961. Architectural firm Roche Dinkeloo & Associates completed the building.

Fulfilling needs

Hatton said the library currently needs more staff spaces, meeting room spaces and programming spaces to “help relieve pressure” on the downtown location at 536 Fifth St., “but also allow us to expand with new programs.”

Some potential new programming that might fit at North Christian Church would be related to youth — particularly given “the 4,000 students that are within walking distance” of the church property — as well as family and cultural programming, Hatton said.

Hatton said North Christian Church has been well maintained but would likely need some renovations to accommodate library facilities, including some issues related to getting patrons between floors, as well as bathroom accessibility and “general renovation, mostly on the lower level,” though “it has yet to be determined exactly what that is and what that would look like.”

“The assessment and the strategic plan shows that (North Christian Church) would be a good fit for us,” Hatton said. “But, again, it has to make sense financially. It has to make sense from the board’s perspective. …But I can see a path forward with that building for the library and then ultimately for the community, because that’s what it’s about, right? It’s about the community.”

Finding new life

The updates from library officials come as a series of architecturally significant buildings in Columbus have changed hands and found new life in recent years.

Local officials said having new owners who are committed to preserving the architectural and historic legacy of the buildings is helping to further the civic identity of Columbus — a city where a Modernist bank is now a coffee shop and a Modernist newspaper building now hosts an architectural school.

Earlier this month, a downtown office building at 301 Washington St. — often referred to as “arguably the most famous address in Columbus” — was sold to Columbus-based Johnson Ventures, which plans to house an office there and is in talks with the Columbus Area Visitor’s Center to restart tours of parts of the building.

The building is the former site of Irwin’s Bank — which later became Irwin Union Bank and Trust — and includes the former office of the late J. Irwin Miller, a Cummins chairman and philanthropist who shared the city’s economy, architecture and culture throughout the 20th century.

Additionally, Lucabe Coffee Company has converted architect Harry Weese’s Irwin Union Bank-turned-First Financial Bank into a coffee shop at Eastbrook Plaza.

“I think change is inevitable, and so many of these buildings and landscapes and properties are now 50 years old,” said Richard McCoy, executive director of Landmark Columbus Foundation, which cares for, celebrates and advances the cultural heritage of Columbus.

“(Architecture) is the center of this community’s civic identity,” McCoy added. “It’s who we are. It’s what this town is all about. The architecture is kind of the residue of a quest for excellence, and as we continue to care for it in a great way, it proves that quest isn’t over. And without it … I think part of Columbus’ soul would be gone.”

McCoy said it is “a big deal” that the library is considering North Christian Church as a possible branch location.

“I think that building is arguably one of the most architecturally significant properties in the county,” McCoy said. “And to have it change hands smoothly and go into the ownership of the library, I think is really exciting, because there will be some public input on that and a way for us to stay connected with it for it to stay, in a way, connected to the mission that the church had.”

While some architecturally significant buildings have found new owners and continue to live on, not all such buildings in Columbus have had the same fate.

In 2020, Cummins Inc. decided to tear down its former medical facility commonly referred to as COHA, located at 605 Cottage Ave., after five years of attempting to find a new owner, saying at the time that the structure was no longer sustainable or commercially viable.

About a year ago, a treasured historical building in downtown Columbus known as the Irwin Block building on Fifth Street, was destroyed by a fire. That lot has remained vacant since the remains of the building were demolished following the fire.