a photograph of a church with a tower next to it

Inside the Fight to Save Two Saarinen Churches in Columbus, Indiana

The small city has a wealth of modernist architecture, but preserving it isn’t always straightforward. The contrasting fates of two churches by Eero and Eliel Saarinen show why.

July 16, 2022, was a bright, clear summer morning in Columbus, Indiana. Nearly 200 people—candles in hand—sang the lyrics to the traditional Gospel tune “This little light of mine” as they descended out of the narthex and down the stairs into the parking lot of Eero Saarinens’s North Christian Church. The congregation celebrated its final service that day, after nearly 60 years as a centerpiece of the community. For its dwindling membership, this was a bittersweet ending: There were simply not enough people left to properly support and care for the church’s iconic, but aging facility. When the candles were finally blown out, it signaled an uncertain but optimistic new era for both the church and the city of Columbus.

This little light of mine……I’m gonna to let it shine…

All around the neighborhood…I’m gonna let it shine

-Traditional Gospel tune

In a city of just over 50,000, North Christian Church (NCC) is one of two major religious buildings in the midst of major preservation campaigns. The churches are two of Columbus’s seven national historic landmarks and are considered by many to be its most important.

Located downtown, First Christian Church was designed by Eero’s father Eliel Saarinen (Then with Saarinen and Saarinen) and is considered one of the first modern churches in the U.S. as well as the genesis of the modern architecture boom in Columbus. While its membership is strong, the building is at risk of losing its monumental tower, which also serves as an icon for the city itself.

A photograph of a modern church with a central steeple
North Christian Church is one of Columbus, Indiana’s many Modernist landmarks.

Eliel and Eero first came to Columbus to work on First Christian. They were hired by the Irwin-Sweeney-Millers, a prominent local family, and the Finns brought with them a Cranbrook-influenced culture of high design and humble, civic modernism that has come to define the city ever since. Their arrival also marked the point at which Columbus began to evolve from an undistinguished county seat to a unique and noteworthy place. Irwin Miller had grown up in First Christian but is best known as chairman of local engine maker Cummins, Inc and the legendary patron of 20th century architecture. He left FCC in 1955 to establish his own congregation on the north side of Columbus they called North Christian Church, an outpost of the Disciples of Christ, a mainline protestant denomination. Eero Saarinen was to design it but died before the 1964 building completion. He had told Miller that he hoped “when I face St. Peter, I am able to say that out of the buildings I did in my lifetime, one of the best was this little church.” Saarinen’s associate Kevin Roche would go on to finish the project, which is considered one of Eero’s best.

First Christian Church, designed by Eliel Saarinen faces a plaza designed by I.M. Pei.

The two churches are important not only for the cultural heritage of Columbus and its place in design history but are also important institutions and places that define the city’s civic identity. FCC marks the southern edge of Columbus’s most important public space, I.M. Pei’s 1971 library plaza, while NCC is located on thirteen acres of Dan Kiley–landscaped grounds and serves as an urban anchor for the surrounding northern neighborhoods. For these reasons, the citizens of Columbus will be taking on an unusual proposition: A public, community-wide effort to save the buildings of two private churches.

Adapting Modernism for the Future

NCC’s congregation—one of the most progressive in the city—has been shrinking drastically, and discussions have been underway to find a new owner for over five years. Indiana University was exploring the option of using the facility as an archive, potentially including the Columbus Indiana Architectural Archives, which are currently owned by the library. However, this scheme never materialized.

An aerial photograph of North Christian Church in Columbus Indiana surrounded by a forest of trees whose leaves are changing colors

John Burnett, a member of the NCC congregation, tipped off Landmark Columbus Foundation (LCF) executive director Richard McCoy about potential adaptive reuse of the church building. Landmark Columbus is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to care for the modern legacy of Columbus—through preservation and with other initiatives such as the biannual Exhibit Columbus city-wide design exhibition. Finding new owners for properties is one of the tools in LCF’s toolkit. McCoy reached out to Jason Hatton, library director of the Bartholomew County Public Library (BCPL), and suggested they look at using it. On August 1, the property was donated to the Columbus Capital Foundation, a nonprofit holding company that takes ownership of significant properties and “mothballs” them while new owners are found, and adaptive reuse plans are put in place.

The library is currently considering a plan to purchase NCC and convert it into a community hub that would host performances, public meetings, and other community programming. They are working with New York–based library consultants Margaret Sullivan Studio on the feasibility study and strategy to maximize community engagement. “Since churches are already built for oral storytelling, gathering, performance, this is a great opportunity for expression in all its vibrant forms,” Sullivan explained. “The library is one of the main public forums where new forms of narrative are taking place.” Meanwhile, Ben Wever—long-time site administrator of the Miller House and Gardens since doing odd jobs and landscaping for the Millers as a teen in 1996—has been hired by the CCF to consult on property management until a new owner is in place. He is paid from a life insurance policy Irwin Miller left to the church for upkeep. “North Christian is the coolest building in town, but there is a lot of catch-up work to do,” Wever said. “I’m working to get it back to the point where you can come see the overall vision of the building and the landscape.”

an interior photograph of an octagonal church
The interior of North Christian Church features a unique hexagonal layout and skylight that speaks to the congregation’s progressive values.

A library decision on the purchase may come as soon as April 2023. “It is likely that we will see the need for additional space.” Hatton said, “No decisions have been made, but we see great value in the NCC property.” For BCPL, NCC’s location makes it desirable for connecting to wider publics; it is within walking distance of other churches, commercial districts, and several schools with almost 4500 students. NCC’s sanctuary space—an ethereal, hexagonal room with uplighting and an oculus—could serve as an inspiring public auditorium, while the auxiliary spaces would be community spaces. “One of the original ideas in Saarinen’s design was that the church could be used by the public beyond just church services,” Hatton said. “This would be more like a community center than a traditional library.” The grounds, too, would be a potential boon for the library—their downtown location’s brick plaza is limited for outdoor activities.

Though the potential for reuse is clear, roadblocks remain. In addition to the usual funding challenges—such as issuing county bonds—the library will need to address the building’s past as a church. Is it appropriate for a former house of God to become a public entity? Would the library need to make this not feel like a church? “There are many people in our community that have been hurt by Christianity,” Hatton said. “How can we make sure it’s clear that this is a welcoming space?”

Leaders at NCC are keen on BCPL inheriting their building since NCC was always a welcoming place and was founded in part due to disagreements with FCC about whether women could be members of the clergy. Reflecting these values, Saarinen’s theater-in-the-round sanctuary was designed to be less hierarchical and more inclusive.

an interior photograph of the wooden alter of an octagonal church
The interior of North Christian Church features details by Alexander Girard and an organ designed by Walter Holtkamp Sr.

Save the Tower! Save the Tower!

While adaptive reuse remains a core tactic, Columbus leaders have also gotten creative with more traditional preservation methods such as funding and advocacy. These methods are being tested at Eliel Saarinen’s FCC—another church central to Columbus’s identity whose brick tower is a recognizable civic symbol but started cracking soon after its completion in 1942. Just six years later, Saarinen and the structural engineer began a series of repairs that would last through the 1970s. The cracks continued to compromise the brick veneer until it became a serious liability issue. By 2019, the church had a decision to make: either take it down or restore it for an estimated $2.5 million (today that number is 3.4 million). They chose to restore it and community-wide fundraising is underway. “It’s just such a damn good building.  And the tower is such an important part of the composition,” local architect Louis Joyner explained. “At 165 feet tall, it’s one of the tallest load-bearing masonry wall buildings in the US, and FCC may be the only Saarinen and Saarinen building that has not been extensively renovated or restored.”

The FCC tower restoration project really started in 2014 when Joyner was brought in to repair a skylight in FCC’s main worship space. The economical thing for the church would have been to simply cover the skylight, but Joyner and other community members advocated for the original design intent to be preserved. Tracy Souza, executive director of the Heritage Fund, a local community foundation, says that the city recognizes the responsibility it has to take care of these important buildings. “We have a design legacy and cultural heritage to take care of,” she said. “The skylight was when people said, ‘Does the community have a role in taking care of a building that belongs to a congregation?’” The tower is central to how Columbus markets itself, and the image that it promotes around the world. “The church owns the building, but the community owns the aesthetics of it,” Souza said. 

a photograph of First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana
The tower of First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana, began cracking soon after construction was completed in 1942.

However, making community donations to a church can be tricky—similar to the challenges of turning North Christian into a library. Many people weren’t comfortable donating directly to the church for a variety of reasons, so to help raise the nearly 100,000 dollars to repair the skylight properly, the Heritage Fund started the “Friends of First Christian Church,” a nonprofit that collected money and made a grant to FCC. It is a win-win, since some church members do not see the value in preserving the building. “You really don’t need skylights or a tower to maintain your faith,” Souza said. “But even though the tower is functionless, it has symbolic value as a guidepost for the community.”

Because Friends of FCC had already been established for the skylight, the church had a vehicle for the community to contribute to the tower. To date, $2.75 million out of an estimated $3.4 million has been raised for First Christian’s tower. Joyner and McCoy at Landmark Columbus worked to get a National Parks Department Save America’s Treasures grant for $500,000. An additional $500,000 came from the Jeffris Family Foundation, which helps preserve historic sites in the Midwest, while Indiana Landmarks helped get $250,000 from the National Fund for Sacred Places. A private donor from Indiana has pledged $750,000, leaving the Columbus community to raise around 1 million dollars, and the congregation will raise about half of that. The situation is still evolving, but right now the community is hopeful that their fundraising goals are within reach.

an interior photograph of a modernist church sanctuary
Repairs to First Christian Church’s skylight began in 2014.

Preserving the Future of Columbus

The challenges at NCC and FCC are pushing the boundaries of Columbus’s idiosyncratic preservation strategy, which McCoy and Landmark Columbus Foundation call “progressive preservation.” Many of the most significant buildings in the city were built from 1954-1974, and this building boom defined almost the entire community from downtown to the county’s western hills to northern residential developments to the rows of corn in the east. However, they are both a blessing and a burden, as the community now must grapple with a huge number of buildings between 50 and 70 years old that now require extensive maintenance. Columbus has a unique preservation challenge as these buildings are not controlled by a central authority: They were built by a range of clients from the school board and parks departments to private businesses and church congregations. Moreover, they are still controlled by various entities, and to make matters even more decentralized and unregulated, there has never been any preservation law in Columbus.

a photograph of First Christian Church where the tower has been removed from the image
Preservationists distrubtured images of First Christian Church without its iconic tower to rally support for their cause.

There have been successes and defeats for Columbus’s preservation community and their evolving tactics and strategies. Cummins Inc. took over the Eero Saarinen-designed Irwin Union Bank and Trust (IUBT) downtown branch and remade it into a conference center. Local coffeehouse Lucabe Coffee opened their second location in a Harry Weese–designed IUBT branch at the Eastbrook Shopping Center across town. However, new uses can’t always be found, nor old problems reconciled. The Commons, a public indoor park, was drastically remodeled in 2011 when its glass walls began to fail and its economic model—Miller family subsidies—was deemed unsustainable. A Cummins health facility by Hugh Hardy could not be retrofitted because it was too inflexible to be anything but a 1970s health facility—despite Cummins’s best efforts. This constant flow of new challenges and opportunities will no doubt continue, if not accelerate in coming decades.

While Columbus may be unique in its wealth of modernist architecture, its resources are not unlimited and plenty more preservation threats loom: The Bartholomew School Corporation is embarking on a decade-long project to potentially renovate every school in the district—including all 20 significant buildings that were funded by the Cummins Foundation Architecture Program. The local mall is being turned into an enormous sports and wellness center by Perkins&Will, and the Otter Creek Golf Course clubhouse by Harry Weese—where Irwin Miller laid out his vision for a community design agenda in a 1964 speech—was just sold by the city to a private owner and could potentially be under threat. All of these buildings are a problem if world-class architects are not enlisted to do the renovations. Columbus has proven time and again that the best architects are no more expensive than mediocre ones.

a detail photograph of the tower of First Christian Church in Columbus, Indiana.

With all of these projects and more coming down the pike, the Heritage Fund has set up a Revolving Loan fund that will issue interest-free loans to eligible nonprofit and tax-exempt organizations to care for “architecturally significant structures and landscapes that are important to the collection of modern architecture that drives and supports the economic vitality of the town.” Landmark Columbus Foundation identified a list of qualifying significant structures in their November 2020 “Columbus Cultural Resource Inventory and Survey Project.”

As Columbus finds a new use for North Christian Church and confirms the value of First Christian’s tower with no function, it’s worth remembering that the symbolic value of our structures is ephemeral, and it takes a village to maintain them. How can a community that was built by design care for its legacy when it is an open-ended condition? Columbus isn’t a museum or even a campus that can be cared for like a work of art. These unique circumstances make this a living project with no clear end and moving targets. There will certainly be victories and losses. And that is ok.

a photograph of people walking toward North Christian Church in Columbus, indiana

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