North Christian Church: A Capstone of the Community
In 2012, the American Institute of Architects named Columbus, Indiana, the 6th most architecturally significant city in the United States, just below Washington, D.C. According to Preservation magazine, with more than 70 significant architectural buildings, this city is an enclave of Midcentury Modern architecture. Nothing illustrates this more than the North Christian Church, which Reverend Tonja Gerardy states is “the capstone of the community. It’s one of the top places visitors to town want to see, people from all over the world. It’s frequently used in marketing for the community, and is seen as a well-known, iconic landmark.”
Because of this sense of pride the entire community of Columbus has in the building, North Christian’s staff and congregation aimed to keep the church accessible for all, envisioning it as a community hub. In recognition of that commitment, the church received approval of $100,000 in funding from the National Fund for Sacred Places in 2016 to replace the HVAC system, a critical piece in securing the future of this historic place.
Architecturally Significant Landmark Church
When the North Christian Church formed in 1955, services were performed at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. It wasn’t until 1958 that the church purchased land for its own house of worship and selected Eero Saarinen as the architect. The congregation broke ground on the building in September 1962 with worship services commencing in March 1964.
Saarinen focused a lot of his design effort on the spire at the North Christian Church, and is quoted in “Eero Saarinen on His Work” as saying:
“On this site, with this kind of central plan, I think I would like to make the church really all one form: all the tower. There would be the gradual building up of the sheltering, hovering planes becoming the spire … It would be good as an exterior form, because the spire is a marvelous symbol of reaching upward to God and because it would proclaim this as a church in the silhouette of Columbus. It would also work well as an interior space. It would give a feeling of soaring space and a feeling of special enclosure.”
While over time the congregation actively worked to maintain the building, in 2010 the HVAC system became a challenge not easily fixed, with two distinct hurdles to the restoration work. The first factor was that, as is the case with many houses of worship, the building was used for more than just religious services as several community organizations depend on the use of the space. Consequently, considerable effort was made to not close the church’s doors.
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“The main thing we did was to let our community partners know that’s how we feel about them, that they are our partners,” said Gerardy in reference to involving others besides the congregation in the restoration project. “We invited them to participate in the conversation and gave them a sense of ownership, and a sense of how they can make a contribution.”
The second hurdle in the restoration process involved the congregation’s Holtkamp Organ, a symbol of the congregation’s deep passion for music and one of the very last instruments designed by Walter Holtkamp Sr. before his death. The Holtkamp Organ company, based out of Cleveland, is one of America’s oldest builders of pipe organs (founded 1855). Walter Holtkamp was personally mentioned in letters written by Saarinen during the design phase. As a vital element of North Christian Church, the HVAC restoration plan required special consideration in temperature control for the organ's upkeep and operation.
The process became even more challenging when, in 2018, while waiting for the project funding from the National Fund, the HVAC system completely failed during the hottest time of year. As this endangered the building’s interior and iconic organ, the church’s engineering and architect team redoubled its efforts to design a solution, and church leaders set up temporary air conditioning units to keep the building usable. The church was also supported by the work of Indiana Landmarks which added the site to its list of 10 Most Endangered Places in Indiana for 2018.
Staff at the National Fund worked with the congregation to fast-track a capital grant as soon as a design solution emerged, receiving the funding for work to begin in January 2019. A breakthrough came when the design team confirmed that the system could be repaired rather than requiring wholesale replacement. With a grant from the National Fund and reserve funds held by the church, the project was fully funded and completed by the end of the summer.
Building a Sustainable Future for North Christian Church
Once the HVAC system was fully functional, the church’s leadership turned its eyes to other work to continue to preserve and support the building. In the summer of 2019, North Christian Church received word of a $150,000 grant from the prestigious Getty Foundation. These funds will be used to create a conservation management plan for the entire campus, a much-needed, new approach to the long-term care of the landmark facility that incorporates national best practices. Upcoming work on the docket includes addressing leaks and water damage, electrical upgrades, and a focus on the grounds as many of the plants are nearing their natural life expectancy and will need to be replaced.
As a result of their collaboration with partners and community members, the staff at North Christian Church saw an unexpected result of the project. Prior to this process, they had not asked for financial help when opening their doors for rental space, even covering most of the expenses. While participating in grant sessions and receiving resources through the National Fund, they started to broach the idea of implementing a fee for rental space to share the expenses of the building and the grounds. Through this process, and the revenue brought in, they were able to hire a community ambassador to serve as the main conduit with partners and community members, continuing to strengthen and enhance the relationships that were formed during the restoration project.
“These new partnerships will give the building and the congregation new life,” said Gerardy. “We have shared our space since founding, but now with the tools and the education from the grant program, I feel we have been inspired, motivated, and coached on how to make it happen more and provide better stewardship.”
In 2020, the staff at North Christian Church continues to involve the community, working with the local visitor’s center, reaching out to arts and music organizations, and hosting a John Denver tribute concert and an opera in early 2020.
However, as with so many other houses of worship, this Modernist marvel has been affected by the current global pandemic. Fundraising has been down, and the building was closed to the public for several months, so their space-share partners were unable to access the building. However, starting June 1, 2020, the board for North Christian Church has started to allow groups to start using it as long as the organizations comply with their COVID-19 policy.
The National Fund for Sacred Places
The 100,000+ historic houses of worship across America play a crucial role in shaping the character of our communities, and many are works of art whose beauty and history make them irreplaceable parts of our national cultural heritage. All are places that bring people together, strengthening and enlivening communities.
The National Fund for Sacred Places, a collaboration between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and Partners for Sacred Places with support from the Lilly Endowment, provides training, planning grants, technical assistance, capacity-building support, and capital grants up to $250,000 to congregations of all faiths for rehabilitation work on their historic facilities.
In the three years of this program, 53 houses of worship from Birmingham, Alabama to Alaska, have received more than $10 million in funding has been committed to projects that range from steeple stabilization to exterior masonry repair to HVAC replacement.