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Bell Tower Is Dangerous And Must Come Down, First Lutheran Church Says

First lutheran church bell tower
Becca Costello
The bell tower at First Lutheran Church in Over-the-Rhine is under emergency demolition orders.

The leadership of First Lutheran Church in Over-the-Rhine say they will not delay demolition of the bell tower in their historic building. Meanwhile, community advocates who have been trying to raise enough money to repair the tower have filed an appeal on the city's emergency demolition orders.

The city of Cincinnati first issued emergency demolition orders on the tower last November, saying the tower is "an imminent hazard of failure and collapse."

First Lutheran Pastor Brian Ferguson says they don't want the bell tower to come down, but they've delayed too long already.

"By allowing the community come to us and say, 'Hey, would you pause,' and by allowing that pause to occur on three occasions, we have been increasing by the day the risks that we're being exposed to," he said.

Ferguson says the situation is complicated and the church's decision isn't based on any one factor; it included safety, legal liability, financial stability and preserving the future of the 179-year-old faith community.

See a statement from the church leadership below; story continues after.

The church hired a contractor at the end of June and could begin demolition soon.

'Praying Every Day' There's Not A Bulldozer On Site

Advocates aren't giving up the fight, though. OTR ADOPT, a nonprofit organization that preserves endangered historic buildings, hired a different engineer to evaluate the safety of the tower. Their report says the tower doesn't need the support upgrades recommended by the first engineer.

"We have an accepted engineering approach that's totally code compliant, totally safe. And we're urging the church to reconsider," said Danny Klingler, founder and executive director of OTR ADOPT, who filed the appeal. "Our team kind of wakes up every day praying that there's not a bulldozer on site."

Pastor Ferguson says although it's true city and state building codes don't require such extensive repairs, the church needs to choose the safest option.

"First Lutheran has a legal obligation to not knowingly allow something to exist with our building or structure that presents a life safety or property concern or threat," Ferguson said. "And so even though the code would say, 'Yep, it's 1895, you don't have to do the modern seismic stabilization,' there are still things in that structure that are cause for concern. And so we knowingly cannot allow those to go forward."

Ferguson says even if the church chose the cheaper repair option, without the seismic stabilization, there's not enough funding available.

Available Funds And Next Steps

Advocates have a plan with about $1.7 million of committed funds for a repair that could cost up to $1.9 million. That includes a $500,000 real estate pledge that Ferguson says is essentially a loan, and the church can't take on the additional debt.

Advocates were hoping for another $500,000 from money leftover from the city's last fiscal year. Although City Council voted 8-1 in June to promise consideration for the bell tower, the project wasn't included in the city manager's proposal for spending carryover funds and no council members have asked it to be added. Council is likely to approve a spending plan for carryover funds this week.

OTR ADOPT is also attempting to halt the tower's demolition by appealing separate demolition orders for a church-owned building next door. The city says part of that structure needs to be torn down in order for a crew to then safely demolish the bell tower.

OTR ADOPT's Klingler says there's not sufficient reason to circumvent a public hearing on tearing down a historic structure.

"What is the rationale for an emergency demo permit?" he said. "The only one would be to get access to another building."

Ferguson says the church has hired an attorney to advise them on how to move forward. He says it's discouraging to spend ministry funds on legal counsel.

"If we lose the bell tower, it means our faith community can still remain active and contributing community. We interpret that as the win, not a loss," Ferguson said. "If we save the bell tower, and it means we have to close our church and the bell tower is still there. And it adds a nice look to the historical landscape. We obviously would consider that a loss not just to First Lutheran, but to the community because of what we provide to the community and services."

The pending appeal does not prevent the church from beginning demolition.

Local Government Reporter with a particular focus on Cincinnati; experienced journalist in public radio and television throughout the Midwest. Enthusiastic about: civic engagement, public libraries, and urban planning.