CINCINNATI – The twin spires of historic Old St. George Church overlooked the city for 135 years until a spectacular fire sent crosses and flaming wooden beams crashing to the ground on Feb. 1, 2008.
Flames shooting from atop the 190-foot landmark in Clifton Heights could be seen for miles, and many feared that the architectural treasure, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, would be reduced to ruin.
But firefighters hosed down the slate roof and contained the fire in the steeples. The body of the German Romanesque-style church, with its stained-glass windows, marble columns and rounded arches, suffered only water damage.
No one was injured in the Friday night fire. The only person in the building, the caretaker who lived there, got out safely. Hundreds of spectators, including students from UC a block away, gathered on nearby streets to watch.
The first call - heavy smoke coming from one of the steeples – went out about 7 p.m. A month later, investigators determined that a light bulb set off combustibles in the west steeple. Strong winds blew the flames to the east steeple, and it became a three-alarm blaze.
For all its grandeur and history, Old St. George had fallen on hard times – blighted, empty and locked up, no longer serving as a church or anything else, almost torn down so a drug store could be built in its place on Calhoun Street.
Renowned Cincinnati architect Samuel Hannaford (Music Hall, City Hall) designed Old St. George, and after it was completed in 1873, it became the center for many Catholics from near and far to worship, wed and pray for their dead. The grade school taught kids from miles around.
Thousands of Cincinnatians remembered it fondly.
But many Catholics started abandoning the cities, and with attendance dwindling, the Archdiocese of Cincinnati closed Old St. George in 1993 and merged it with another parish.
Then & Now: How the Clifton Heights neighborhood looked in 1942 and today. (Drag the white, circular tool left and right to see before and after)
A volunteer group bought the church in 1994 and turned it into a community center and offices for UC ministries, but they didn't have the money to sustain. In 2005, Walgreens offered to buy the church so it could demolish it and build a drug store. But the Clifton Heights Community Urban Redevelopment Corporation (CHCURC) made a matching offer in order to save the building.
CHCURC worked with a developer but couldn't find a suitable project for the church until last year. That's when Crossroads Church stepped forward to buy it and reopen it as a 21st-century house of worship.
The modern megachurch paid $871,000 for the property and is spending $11 million to renovate and modernize it after 143 years, according to its website.
Crossroads even plans to replace the steeples. And it plans to blend its large videoboards and contemporary fixtures with the old stained glass and marble.
"The proposed steeples for Old Saint George will be built in the same octagonal pointed shape and size as the historical steeples, as show in the above rendering. They will be composed of a painted metal frame clad in translucent (perforated or mesh) painted metal panels. This will all be in a color closely matching the copper paint on the existing façade below.”
The needed changes run a lot deeper than aesthetics, though.
Old St. George is expected to reopen in late summer.
PHOTO GALLERY: Inside Old St. George.