There I was, caught in a traffic jam on I-75 southbound, just west of downtown Cincinnati. Traffic was piling into two lanes as I-75 merged with I-71 to cross the Ohio River into Kentucky, and I was a captive audience. I was working my way through all of the Shostakovich quartets on my long road trip and had reached the Eighth. Outside, the temperature had soared into the low 90s F. I looked off to my left, and spotted the spire of a church. I looked a little more closely and realized it seemed to be leaning and in a state of decay. The church below it seemed to have some scaffolding up, so perhaps there was something underway to restore it, but it still looked quite derelict. I was unable to get a photograph (being behind the wheel of a car), but I tried to freeze the memory of its location on my brain so I could look it up later. On the way back, I saw it again, but traffic was actually moving this time so I didn’t have much time to notice many more details other than the fact that it was very close to the highway.
After a couple of sessions poring over Google Maps, I finally spotted it, at the southwest corner of Hulbert and Freeman Aves:
Further Googling revealed that this was the First German Reformed Church, constructed in 1850. In 1918, in the wake of the First World War, it changed its name to the First Reformed Church. The neighbourhood around it began to transition in the 50s and 60s from one populated by German immigrants to one where Black Americans dominated, and in 1970 the congregation sold the building and moved. It was then occupied for five years by another church before being abandoned. In 1993, Seven Hills Neighborhood Houses acquired the property (including the adjoining manse) and the sanctuary, which was not reoccupied, was eventually slated for demolition. A group called Over-the-Rhine Adopt matched the property up with a buyer who, in exchange for a discounted sale price, pledged to redevelop it into an art gallery and a restaurant. (The property is actually in the West End neighborhood rather than in Over-the-Rhine, which is just east of there). That never happened, despite an enthusiastic start (a Facebook group still survives from this period).
In 2017 it was sold again to another buyer, who planned to turn it into a rock-climbing gym. I found a video of a local architectural historian who received a tour of the interior as the new owners began their work:
I also found the church’s entry in Abandoned here, which includes wonderful shots of the interior. Another collection of images is here. Both these and the Google street view screen grabs above predate this new effort.
Off I want to Google again to see if anything had become of the latest efforts to rehabilitate the church, and I found the Facebook Page for Cincinnati Rocks, the group that is working on the building. It looks like steady, if slow, progress is being made on a new roof and stabilizing the walls (hence the scaffold I saw, which has now moved to the other side):
The Facebook group also has some outstanding photos of some of the interior progress. As it turns out, the main reason the spire looks like it is leaning is because of damage to its roof, which can be seen in the right side of the photo above and in other photos. If the spire were actually leaning, the new owners would likely not have been able to leave it in place without stabilizing it. Incidentally, the photo above shows clearly how the construction of I-75 bisected this neighbourhood, likely contributing to its decline.
It looks very much like the plans to reclaim this church are in the vein of other efforts to reclaim historic abandoned buildings in the downtowns of many cities–Detroit and Columbus being the two examples I have seen first-hand. The nearby Over-the-Rhine neighbourhood, once infamous for its high crime rate and riots, in the past decade has started to gentrify, particularly focusing on the historic breweries in the area. Gentrification is, of course, not without its controversies, but in this case, if a nearly 175-year-old church can be reclaimed for new uses, it will be a victory for historic preservation.