CINCINNATI — An Over-The-Rhine church is on the brink of closing its doors. First Lutheran Church's pastor says after a lengthy legal battle with preservationists over its bell tower, the church will not have enough money to operate past the summer.
"It is a detriment to our community to the point where we might close after 180 years," Brian Ferguson said.
The situation at First Lutheran has been a series of unfortunate events. First, the pandemic kept congregants out. Then, the city issued an emergency abatement order in November 2020 saying the church's bell tower was structurally unsound and a danger to the streetcar and people below.
Ferguson said the city's chief building inspector told him "the tower could come down at any moment from a weather event."
At first, the church tried to save the bell tower, voting to restore it. OTR A.D.O.P.T. even offered $500,000 to aid in its preservation.
"It was about $450,000 is what we estimated would be the cost to restore the tower," Ferguson said. "That was before we discovered the issues that were much more significant than we imagined."
Another report from an engineering firm they retained moved the goalposts. The work that the firm recommended needed to be done went above and beyond city standards. Engineers estimated it would cost $1.2 million, but by February 2021, the figure ballooned to $3.2 million — more than double the funds the church raised.
"We wanted to save the tower and now that we've determined that it's not possible, we are having to spend these ministry funds to take down something we didn't want to take down," Ferguson said.
OTR A.D.O.P.T. Director Danny Klingler filed a lawsuit to stop its demolition, but months of legal battles are costly.
"We have incurred over $100,000 in legal expenses related to these efforts," he said.
Now, the parties are in mediation to come up with a solution, but Ferguson said it might be too late to keep First Lutheran standing past its 127-year anniversary on Race Street.
"We're already having the conversations about (what it looks) like to close the church or sell the church or leave the building, not to return," he said. "The safety of the community is more important than historic preservation."
On top of that, Ferguson said the church's insurance company dropped them just two weeks ago. Now, they no longer have building coverage. If the tower collapses, the church catches fire or some other act of God strikes, the church will not have any money to rebuild.
WCPO reached out to Klingler. However, he declined to go on record until mediation was over.
First Lutheran Church bell tower coming down in OTR
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