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Church rallies for city support of bell tower demolition

First Lutheran Church parishioners rally outside City Hall on February 24, 2022.
Becca Costello
First Lutheran Church parishioners rally outside City Hall on February 24, 2022.

A few dozen people rallied in front of Cincinnati City Hall Thursday, asking city officials to issue a demolition permit for the historic bell tower of First Lutheran Church in Over-the-Rhine. Church leaders say months of litigation have put the faith community in financial crisis and at risk of disbanding.

"Our 180 years in Cincinnati puts the choice into perspective: people or a steeple," First Lutheran church member Chris Heckman told council. "The city has tried to be neutral, but we need a resolution. We've been cited for a danger to the public."

City officials inspected the tower over a year ago and ordered an emergency demolition, bypassing the usual requirement for a hearing by the Historic Conservation Board. The church delayed several times while trying to raise enough money for repairs. When that failed, local preservation group OTR A.D.O.P.T. filed a lawsuit to prevent demolition.

Executive Director Danny Klingler dropped the lawsuit in favor of mediation with Pastor Brian Ferguson in January. Klingler says a few weeks after the meeting, the church rejected a mediation proposal and again asked the city for the demolition permit.

In response, OTR A.D.O.P.T. filed a new lawsuit, saying a decision from the city's Board of Building Appeals is illegal and should be overturned. In the meantime, they're asking a judge to order the city not to issue the demolition permit. Judge Lisa Allen has not ruled on the motion.

"We are part of a broad coalition of over 110 individuals and 12 organizations that have stepped up to contribute to raising hundreds of thousands dollars to save the First Lutheran Church bell tower," Klingler said. "Our only goal is to hand that money over to the church to repair their bell tower and allow the church to flourish and to grow in their historic building."

Pastor Ferguson sent a letter to Mayor Aftab Pureval and Vice Mayor Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney this week, saying there's not enough money to completely repair the tower even with community donations.

"[T]he city has and continues to refuse to issue the permits we need to be able to make the tower safe," Ferguson wrote. "The city is endangering the public by refusing to issue those permits to us."

City Solicitor Andrew Garth declined to comment, citing active litigation.

The lawsuit is scheduled for a hearing on April 6. Ferguson's letter says the church's property insurance policy will be terminated March 25 unless the bell tower is fully repaired or demolished.

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.