First Christian Church’s clock tower, completed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen in 1942, has been restored in Columbus, Indiana

In Columbus, Indiana, over 300 community members gathered recently inside First Christian Church, completed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen in 1942, to celebrate the full restoration of the building’s iconic clock tower. Louis Joyner Architect (LJA), an Indiana firm, was the restoration architect.

In total, the repairs cost over $3 million to make, and about eight months to implement. Funds were raised to address structural damages and restore the clock tower, made up of Indiana limestone carved grille screens, to its original glory. The restoration marks the first comprehensive restoration of Saarinen’s iconic tower in its 81-year history, officials said. “We are so thrilled to have this tower restored for future generations,” Richard McCoy, executive director of Landmark Columbus Foundation said. “Simply put, without this tower Columbus would not be the same place.”

Side elevation (Hadley Fruits/Courtesy Landmark Columbus Foundation)

The tower designed by Eliel and Eero Saarinen stands 166 feet off the ground as a freestanding structure, rising about six stories above grade. It also has a basement and a cistern in a sub-basement. In elevation, the clock tower is fortified by a mass-masonry structure.

The walls are made entirely of brick, and are thicker at the base than they are on top, (29 inches and and 17 inches respectively) similar to Chicago’s Monadnock Building. Floors are made up of concrete with steel angle supports. One of the replacements included swapping out originally infilled precast concrete grilles with plastic panels.

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Detail Eliel and Eero Saarinen completed the tower in 1942. After a fund raising effort, it’s been restored. (Hadley Fruits/Courtesy Landmark Columbus Foundation)

Work on the tower first began in 2014 at the request of the Trustees of the Church, when LJA, LJ Engineering, and The Engineering Collaborative (TEC) prepared a condition report for the entire First Christian Church campus. Then in 2018, the need for repairs became more urgent when cracks emerged in the tower. A new assessment was drawn up in 2019 which called for a restoration scope in four major parts: stabilization and repair of the upper 50 feet at the Clock Chamber Level; reconstruction of the “Zipper”; interior repairs; and ventilation and water vapor control. Ratio Architects worked as preservation consultants with LJA on the report, alongside Arsee Engineers, TEC, and F.A. Wilhelm Construction.

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Eliel and Eero Saarinen completed the tower in 1942. After a fund raising effort, it’s been restored. (Hadley Fruits/Courtesy Landmark Columbus Foundation)

At First Christian Church, the facade is made of Cranbrook Buckskin Blend, a masonry product that went out of production years ago, presenting a unique challenge to the restoration team. The architects eventually settled on a similar looking brick with a comparable size and texture.

The project team include members of the First Christian Church, Columbus’s Heritage Fund, and Landmark Columbus Foundation. The $3 million in funding needed for the restoration was raised from local and out-of-town donors through the Save Our Tower campaign. The Jeffris Family Foundation assisted in support, a nonprofit which aids cultural initiatives throughout the midwest. Other funding sources were a $500,000 grant from Save America’s Treasures; $500,000 from the National Park Services; and $250,000 from the National Fund for Sacred Places.

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