Sunday, January 10, 1999

ARCHITECTURAL CRUSADE


Over-the-Rhine man fights to restore 1840s German Protestant church

        Last year, as part of the millennium celebrations, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton began her campaign to preserve “an array of remnants of America's heritage.” This the first part of a monthly, year-long series focusing on remnants of Tristate history falling into ruin.

BY OWEN FINDSEN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[church]
In 1978, St. Paul's German Evangelical Church still housed a drugstore on the corner.

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        Mike Stehlin probed his way with a flashlight up stairs and through dark passages filled with rubble. At the top of the stairs the passage opens into a large square space with a 40-foot ceiling and a wide balcony on three sides.

        This is the sanctuary of St. Paulus Deutsche Evangelische Kirche, (St. Paul's German Evangelical Church) at 1427 Race St., Over-the-Rhine.

        St. Paul's, Cincinnati's oldest remaining Protestant church building, is empty and decaying. Mr. Stehlin hopes to rescue it.

        “I've lived in this neighborhood for 10 years, just a block away, and I've always been interested in this church,” says Mr. Stehlin, an architect who specializes in historic restoration. “There was a church in here until five years ago, and the drugstore on the corner was still open.”

        Gothic windows once filled with stained glass light the space. Light also streams in, as do rain and snow, through wide gaps in the roof. The dampness has soaked the floor and caused the canvas murals on the walls to peel away.

[church]
Architect Mark Stehlin shows how the church's three-sided balcony has decayed.

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        “The city owns the building,” Mr. Stehlin says. “They were on the edge about whether to demolish it or fix the roof. We hired a guy to repair the roof, but he did half the job and disappeared six months ago.”

        A non-profit group, Abandoned Buildings Co. (ABC), has agreed to take the building from the city and maintain it until a use for it can be found.

        “We're prepared to take it on” said John Hauck, ABC president, “providing the roof is repaired first.”

        One hundred and 50 years ago St. Paul's was one of five Protestant churches in the German community. The German revolutions of the 1830s and '40s had forced many Germans to emigrate to the United States, thousands to Cincinnati. In 1850, there were 30,000 Germans here, among a population of 160,000.

        But Germany was not yet a single nation, and Germans were not a single group of people. There were Protestants, Catholics and Jews. Northern and southern Germans spoke different dialects.

        St. Paul's was built by northern Germans “who spoke the low German dialect,” Robert J. Wimberg wrote in his 1987 book Cincinnati Over-the-Rhine (Ohio Book Store; $16.95). “They had broken away from St. John's German Protestant Church because they felt that the southern Germans were dominating the religious services. Also they did not want to speak the Swabian dialect.”

        The brick building, once painted gray, is “kind of a primitive style church,” Mr. Stehlin says, “very much of a box. You don't see this style with the balcony on both sides very much.”

        Like other German churches in Over-the-Rhine, the sanctuary is on the second floor, as they are in the churches in Germany of the period. Sunday school classes were held on the ground floor. The congregation was organized in 1845 and first met in a building on Second Street between Vine and Walnut.

        When planning their new church, members devised a clever way to pay the mortgage.

        “The congregation supported the church by putting in a store on the corner,” Mr. Stehlin says. It was a drugstore, and part of the Rexall Drug sign remains. Inside, the store still has its shelves and counters, just as it did in March 1993, the month showing on the calendar hanging on the wall.

Reflects the times
        The church is Greek Revival in style, with pointed Gothic windows, and a three-tier bell and clock tower rising 116 feet.

        “I have a photograph that shows a steeple that would have gone up another 30 feet,” Mr. Stehlin says. “The view from the tower is incredible.”

        Above the front door of the church is a carved stone inscription reading “Deutsche Evangelische St. Paulus Kirche” and the motto “Wahrheit, Tugend, Freiheit,” (“Truth, Virtue, Freedom.”)

        Traces of paint on the walls show decorative borders, and the cove of the ceiling still retains the original painted designs.

        The wall behind the altar shows signs of a mural, covered at some point by a wall-size mural on canvas, giving the illusion that the church opens on to a Roman basilica. Behind an ornate plaster rosette in the center of the ceiling there is a mechanical device for raising and lowering a chandelier.

        “They would have lit with oil lamps at first. There are places for gas fixtures that were added later,” Mr. Stehlin says.

        Few changes were made to the structure, so it remains close to its original form.

Structurally sound
        Adjacent to the church on the south is a parsonage, which has a stone facade with fanciful carvings of people, animals and fish.

        The original congregation joined with St. Peter German Evangelical Church and moved to Westwood in 1950 as St. Peter and Paul United Church of Christ.

        Various other churches used the building. The last was Freedom Baptist Church, which used only one small corner room.

        “The building is structurally sound,” Mr. Stehlin says. “The walls are three-feet thick. The roof is spanned by 60-foot wood trusses. One had failed, but it's been bolted together again.”

        Although not the neighborhood's oldest church — St. Mary's Catholic Church in Over-the-Rhine is a decade older — St. Paul's is worth preserving as an example of the many churches that once served the German community, Mr. Stehlin says.

        “It's a daunting project. In a way this is a white elephant. There are empty buildings all around, and no one wants to take on a project like this.”

        Some groups have looked at the building with ideas for various projects including a neighborhood art center and a auditorium for showing movies, but “none have panned out,” Mr. Stehlin says.

        But he is not giving up.

        “I feel that we can get a roof on this building in the next six months. Then we'll try to find someone who can use it.”

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