Thursday, December 4, 2003

Saving the Tower

Renovation to begin at antislavery site

By Kevin Aldridge
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[IMAGE] The bell tower is all that's left of Walnut Hills Presbyterian Church.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
Like a spike of old stone and stained glass, the Walnut Hills Presbyterian Church tower stands defiantly at the intersection of William Howard Taft Road and Gilbert Avenue.

The tower is all that remains of the 118-year-old church and its ties to the pre-Civil War movement to abolish slavery, and to one of the city's early settlers, James Kemper. The rest of the structure was torn down months ago to make room for the expansion of a funeral home.

Preservationists fought for nearly two years to save the church - delaying the demolition several times - but could not raise enough money to buy it or find tenants to renovate and reuse the building. But just when it looked like the city was about to lose an icon, officials at the Cincinnati Preservation Association had a brainstorm.

"One of the guys from the demolition team said to me, 'Why not buy the tower since you can't save the whole church?'" said Paul Muller, an architect and past president of the preservation association. "It made perfect sense."

The preservation association spent about $160,000 to purchase the tower and surrounding land from the property owner, the Rev. Donald Jordan Sr. The group now plans to restore and renovate the tower by adding bells, landscaping and a permanent exhibit commemorating the 1834 antislavery debates and history of the church.

"One of the nice things historic preservation can do is keep historic moments alive and visible in the present," Muller said. "We think the tower can serve as a connection and a reminder of those events, even though we lost most of the church."

The first phase of the restoration, repairing masonry and stabilizing the freestanding tower, is to begin in about two weeks.

Chris Cain, executive director of the Cincinnati Preservation Association, said he envisions the tower becoming a stop on tours from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center and the Harriet Beecher Stowe House. Cain said the association would like to turn over operation of the tower to an agency that specializes in heritage tourism.

For more information or to contribute to the restoration: 721-4506


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