Entire First Christian tower project now complete

The entire $3.2 million First Christian Church tower repair project, including the replacement of the surrounding concrete, is now complete.

First Christian Church, designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen and completed in 1942, is one of the great works of American architecture from the first half of the 20th century. It is widely considered the first Modernist church in America, and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2000. The building illustrates the Saarinens’ genius in building composition and urban design. The relationship of the building to its tower and the site’s open space, as well as how the total work relates to the surrounding urban fabric, are among the structure’s strongest points.

The tower is a 166-foot-high freestanding structure with six levels above grade, a basement, and a cistern in a sub-basement. It is a mass-masonry structure; the walls are entirely brick (29” thick at the base and step back to 17” thick on the highest level). Floors are concrete with steel angle supports. The upper portion of the tower is the clock chamber, whose east and west faces are made up of a grid of four-foot square openings. Originally infilled with precast concrete grilles, they were later replaced with plastic panels. A series of similar four-foot square openings runs vertically on the west side.

In 2014, at the request of the church trustees, architect Louis Joyner with LJ Engineering and The Engineering Collaborative prepared a condition report for the entire First Christian Church campus. This report identified the tower as the largest and most complex of the items requiring attention. Among the problems noted in the report were extensive masonry cracking, excessive amounts of water in the interior, and extensive rust throughout. Evidence of prior repairs pointed to a history of problems in the past.

In 2018, alarming cracks in the tower were observed that appeared to be new or expanding, resulting in a new assessment presented to the trustees in February 2019, that called for a restoration scope of four major parts; stabilization and repair of the upper 50 feet (the “Clock Chamber” level); reconstruction of the “Zipper”; interior repairs; and ventilation and water vapor control. Joyner oversaw the work with Ratio Architects (preservation consultants), Arsee Engineers (structural engineer), The Engineering Collaborative (MEP), and F.A. Wilhelm Construction Co. (general contractor).

First, the grid of openings on the east and west faces of the upper portions of the tower was originally infilled with precast concrete grilles. Unfortunately, the design permitted movement, which created extensive cracking on all four walls. This led to water infiltration, which resulted in even more masonry damage and extensive rust. Stabilization and repair of the upper 50 feet (the “clock chamber” level) involved removing the east and west walls, removing the brick veneer on the north and south faces, and dismantling the parapets. The east and west sides were reconstructed with a concrete block backup that gives this area the rigidity it lacked. The plastic panels were replaced with Indiana limestone carved in the original grilles’ patterns. Limestone was selected because it looks similar to the original concrete but is much more durable. Cracks in the remaining brick walls were extensively repaired, and the veneer was reinstalled.

Second, the “zipper” is the stack of 20 openings on the west side of the tower that were also originally infilled with concrete grilles, which may have caused early cracking. At some point, probably around 1960, this was addressed with a concrete “patch” that securely ties the north and west walls. The structural repair was effective, but all the lintels and spandrels were badly damaged from moisture infiltration and were replaced. The new work included the reconstruction of the lintels and the installation of new limestone panels matching the original design (different from the clock chamber grid panels).

On the interior, water and water vapor damaged the brick and all steel items in the structure. Brick and concrete were spalling and were repaired. Rusting ladders and other steel items have been replaced.

And finally, the original concrete grilles allowed extensive ventilation that permitted the tower to breathe. With the infilling of the “Zipper” and installation of the plastic panels, water vapor could not escape and led to the damage noted above. It was exacerbated by evaporation from an unsealed cistern in the lowest level. The situation was bad enough that it seemed like it had been raining indoors. This required a powerful ventilation system with a new intake and fan. Supplemental heat is being used at times when condensation is most likely. And the cistern has been sealed.

Some of the other work this project addressed includes: miles of crack repair; thousands of cracked or spalled bricks replaced; cleaning and tuckpointing; limestone repair; restoration of the clock; new lighting; cistern pump replacement; restoration of Saarinen’s complicated wood door; and replacement of the roof membrane.

The project was overseen by a partnership between First Christian Church, The Heritage Fund — the Community Foundation of Bartholomew County, and Landmark Columbus Foundation. Funds for this project were raised both locally and out-of-town through the Save Our Tower campaign and then matched in a grant agreement by the Jeffris Family Foundation, which assists in the development of historic sites for nonprofit organizations in several small towns and cities in the Midwest. The Jeffris Family Foundation cited the project’s exceptional planning and leadership in offering this grant. Other funding for the project also has included a $500,000 Save America’s Treasures grant in the amount of $500,000 from the National Park Service, and a $250,000 grant from the National Fund for Sacred Places.

Many donors in Indiana and beyond contributed significantly to the project, including John and Sarah Lechleiter, Rick and Alice Johnson, Tony Moravec, the Irwin Financial Foundation, and the Miller Family.

Tracy Souza, president and CEO of The Heritage Fund, said about 70 donors provided donations over the 19-month period to enable the matching funds. “The partnership formed between Heritage Fund, First Christian Church, and Landmark Columbus Foundation is quite special. Each party brings an important component to the table to make this project successful,” Souza said.

“The generosity, encouragement, and support from all sources have been overwhelming. To know that such a diverse group from near and far have found an interest in the building, architecture, and history and can come together in harmony for a project like this is truly moving,” said Tim Bond, executive minister of First Christian Church.

“We are so thrilled to have this tower restored for future generations,” said Richard McCoy, founding executive director of Landmark Columbus Foundation. “Simply put, without this tower, Columbus would not be the same place.”