Through the stained glass: Cleveland Restoration Society's mission to restore historic churches

If a beautifully lit church has ever caught your eye while driving down I-71, you can thank Cleveland Restoration Society (CRS). Through its Sacred Landmarks Assistance Program, 19 of the city’s steeples and bell towers along the busy interstate freeway have been illuminated as part of its Steeple Lighting Program.

And that’s not all the organization is shining a light on: On Saturday, Nov. 4, CRS will celebrate Cleveland's hundreds of historic places of worship—and their ongoing renovation efforts—with its annual benefit, Shining a Light on Cleveland’s Sacred Landmarks.

“Northeast Ohio is blessed with hundreds of historically significant religious properties that represent the finest craftsmanship and architectural talent of their day,” says Michael Fleenor, director of preservation services for the Cleveland Restoration Society. “These buildings reflect and embody the spiritual and cultural traditions of their congregations, whose rich histories are still evident.”

The Steeple Lighting Program is just one facet of the Sacred Landmarks Assistance program, which has helped Cleveland’s churches with repair and preservation needs since 1996. Of course, many of Cleveland’s churches have been around much longer than that—since the late 1800s and early 1900s, to be exact. When immigrant groups began settling in Cleveland neighborhoods like Slavic Village, Tremont, Birdtown, and St. Clair/Superior, so too came the establishment of centers of worship. Many of these historic churches still stand today, and continue to be anchors in the communities they serve.

But these landmarks are also more than 100 years old, and many have been showing their age for years. With so many built in stone with intricate towers and steeples, and adorned with ornate stained glass, the upkeep and preservation on these structures can be daunting.

Enter the Cleveland Restoration Society, which offers renovation advice and services through a partnership with Ohio History Connection and a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior's Historic Preservation Fund (administered by the Ohio Historic Preservation Office). 

“Over the last few decades, many of these properties have suffered a slow physical deterioration due to changing congregations, declining revenues, and lack of financial and technical resources,” explains Fleenor. “[When] overwhelmed by the challenges of maintaining their buildings, performing repairs, and hosting community outreach programs, congregations can turn to the Sacred Landmarks Assistance Program for reliable, impartial technical assistance that encourages and fosters proactive and sound property management.”

One of only a handful of nonprofit organizations nationwide that provide this kind of assistance, CRS has helped about 15 congregations with renovations through its Sacred Landmarks Assistance program. The organization has also received about 540 requests for technical advice since the program started.

The projects range from small jobs to enormous projects, and they sometimes intertwine—for instance, CRS brought in an HVAC expert at one church to "help another congregation figure out tweaks that their new boiler needed so that heat distribution was more even throughout their massive building."

Many of the churches have required assistance with masonry issues and roofs. "These buildings were built like tanks, and yet they often have elaborate coping (the often-large stones that outline the roof and complex rooflines). The stone and tile or slate roofs have an extremely long lifespan, but after 100-plus years, they need tune-ups. Once these things are done, they will last another 100-plus years,” says Fleenor.

But Fleenor says the most common problem is water infiltration. “Water is the enemy of a historic building and roofs, gutters, and masonry,” he says.

The program is run by a panel of trustees who lend their knowledge to the congregations that call upon CRS. “We’re fortunate to have trustees who have the expertise and volunteer their time,” says Fleenor.

The Nov. 4 benefit will help support the work CRS does in assisting Cleveland’s congregations in preserving and restoring their historic landmarks and the communities where they are located. The event is sponsored in part by BakerHostetler, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, Denk Associates, Sherwin-Williams, and HDS Architects. All funds raised at the event will go to the Sacred Landmarks Initiative. The event starts at 5:30 p.m. at the 1901-built Trinity Cathedral (2230 Euclid Ave.). Tickets are $200 and include cathedral tours, a wine tasting, and seated dinner.

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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