Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Demolition begins on historic church

By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Paul Muller's heart sank as workers gently coaxed dozens of stained-glass panels depicting Christ's resurrection from the windows of the Walnut Hills Presbyterian Church. Muller, an architect and president of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, knows that a piece of history is being demolished.

The church's stained glass is being removed by Marc Longworth and Robert Collins Jr. of Stained Glass Studio of Hamilton.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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The 118-year-old church at William Howard Taft Road and Gilbert Avenue has ties to the pre-Civil War movement to abolish slavery and to one of the city's early settlers, James Kemper.

Its owner, the Rev. Donald Jordan Sr., says the majestic stone structure is being torn down in the name of progress. Preservationists say the city is losing an icon.

"It's an architectural gem that is irreplaceable. Once it's gone, it's gone forever," Muller said. "We continue to tear down these great parts of our city's heritage and the things that get built in their place rarely compare.

"Cities that do this on a regular basis end up losing their character," he said. "I'm still not convinced that tearing it down is in anybody's interest. This just strikes me as very sad."

A chain-link fence with an "authorized personnel only" sign stands as testament to the beginning of the end for the landmark. Workers have begun stripping the interior, removing items that can be salvaged.

The church has been a Walnut Hills landmark since 1885.
(Ernest Coleman photo)
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It will take at least two weeks to remove asbestos before demolition of exterior walls can start, said Ronald Mosley, a general superintendent of Acme Construction Services Inc. Mosley said people from across the Tristate have been lining up to purchase stained glass, handcut stone, woodwork and other materials.

A podium from the church's pulpit was donated to a small church in Ripley, Ohio, that has links to the Underground Railroad. A cornerstone from an earlier Walnut Hills church, built in 1818 by Kemper, is embedded in a wall. Mosley said it will be removed and donated to a local Presbyterian church organization.

"The church will live on," Mosley said. "This is not us just tearing down the building, crushing it and throwing it away."

Walnut Hills Presbyterian Church was built in 1885 by affiliates of the Lane Theological Seminary, active in the pre-Civil War movement to abolish slavery. The seminary sponsored 18 nights of debates in 1834 on the morality of slavery. Historians say that few sites offer such a strong connection to the historic shift in American social thought as that initiated by the Lane Debates.

The church is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but is not locally designated. The architect was Samuel Hannaford, who also designed Cincinnati City Hall and Music Hall.

The church is being torn down to make room for expansion of the Thompson Hall & Jordan Funeral Home next door. Jordan said he wants to expand the funeral home to stay competitive.

Preservationists could not raise enough money or find tenants to renovate and reuse the building. They tried to interest a video production business in occupying the church and had hoped that the large sanctuary could be used by community organizations and theater groups, Muller said.

Muller still holds out a slim hope.

"My view is that as long as it is standing, we haven't made the final irrevocable error that puts a historic landmark into a pile of dust," he said. "I personally am not going to say it's coming down until it's down."

Dolly Mitchell, 88, said she still considers Walnut Hills Presbyterian "my church." Her family attended the church when it went by the name First Presbyterian Church of Walnut Hills.

"It can never be the beautiful church it once was, so put it to rest," Mitchell said. "The few of us (old members) that are left don't want to see it abused. We have beautiful memories of our church and the neighborhood the way it was so long ago."

Muller said efforts to save the church have rallied people from all corners of the city. He said he respected Jordan's cooperative spirit.

"This has not been the classic battle most people are used to hearing about in these instances," he said. "This has been more of an effort to form a strategy that works for everyone."

Jordan, whose expansion plans have been on hold for a year, said he's relieved that his business can finally move forward and grow.

"It would have been a great thing for the city had we been able to renew that church," said Jordan, who estimated it would cost $2 million to fully renovate it. "But you can't keep looking back. You've got to move ahead."

E-mail kaldridge@enquirer.com

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