DONALD STREET, HIGHETT
Empty for seven years and demolished overnight.
This church was at risk when I wrote the description that follows. It had been sold in 2013 but was still standing locked and empty. Out of the blue it was demolished in late March, before I could get a photograph.
The location of St Stephen’s was typical of more than a few Anglican churches built in the expanding suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. Not for them the big corner sites in the main streets with room for a school and perhaps a convent. They all seemed to go, along with the hilltop sites of popular sectarian legend, to the RCs. And when the Anglicans did obtain such a site, they seldom made the most of it. Witness St James’s, Glen Iris, which should have had a towering 1920s Louis Williams edifice with a spire visible from all over the eastern suburbs, and received instead – thanks to that nemesis of many a grand plan, a depression and war – a 1950s box (not without architectural merit); or St Matthew’s, Ashburton, which never progressed beyond a dual-purpose hall, just clinging on as a church today with the help of a South Indian congregation.
St Stephen’s occupied four house blocks among the brick and timber dwellings of a narrow residential street, away from shops, schools and what is now called the train station. Were the Anglican diocesan planners caught on the hop when sites for churches were being acquired in new suburbs? Were the Anglican laity not as munificent as RCs in donating land, or in what they put into the plate? Whatever the reason, there are several suburbs where the local Anglican church is or was out of the way somewhere among the tiled roofs of an anonymous-looking street. St Thomas’s, Ferntree Gully, St Silas’s, North Balwyn, and the Epiphany, Oakleigh are a case in point.
As was St Stephen’s, where the foundation stone was laid on 18 November 1967. The church was designed by Wystan Widdows (1912-1982), an English-born architect second only to Louis Williams in his prolific output of more than thirty post-war Anglican churches. It was his last church before he returned to England. St Stephen’s showed Widdows in moderately “advanced” mode; his earlier churches were conventional in plan with nave leading to a sanctuary at the far end and a choir in a chancel between, whereas St Stephen’s was on a basically hexagonal plan influenced by the ideals of the European Liturgical Movement, in which altars were to be brought forward, closer to a congregation gathered around. St Stephen’s was not quite that advanced, and the altar, cleared out before demolition with the rest of the furnishings (some of which have gone to the Anglican church at Beechworth in north-eastern Victoria) was not placed to be seen in the round, as strict Liturgical Movement practice would require.
The church was built of cream brick, notched at the outside corners – not an attractive detail; it made the walls look unfinished as though there should have been something joined on. The roof was pitched low with broad eaves. The nave and a front wing of chapel and foyer had repeating bays of narrow rectangular windows glazed in a simple geometric pattern. There were two wide entrances on the main (street) frontage, one sheltered by a port-cochère with wedge-shaped roof and each with a tripartite set of timber-framed glazed doors. A thin perforated tapered spire, said to be in the manner of Frank Lloyd Wright, denoted the building’s ecclesiastical function.
How proud the local Anglican churchgoers, more numerous then than now, must have been on the day their new church, reassuringly moderate in its tentative embrace of avant-garde ecclesiastical fashion, was opened. How sad the decline as they became older and fewer, to the point where the Anglican authorities decided their church was no longer “viable” – after less than half a century, which used to be nothing in the lifetime of a church.
This well-designed building deserved a better site. Two adjacent timber halls, one going back to the first Anglican services in Highett in 1931 and the other an ex-army structure that with a bell tower and other additions served as a temporary church, have been cleared away with the church.