STATION STREET, BOX HILL
Squeezed out by the high-rises.
It is no new thing for a church to be sold for the value of its land. In Melbourne this happened as long ago as 1913 when the historic site on which St James’s Old Cathedral had stood since 1842 was sold and the building moved block by block to West Melbourne. It happened in 1957 when St John’s, Latrobe Street, near Elizabeth Street, was sold and demolished. In the 1980s St John’s Lutheran church in City Road, South Melbourne, was demolished, but replaced, in the Southbank redevelopment. Now a second Lutheran church has had to make way for urban reconstruction, this time in Box Hill.
St Paul’s is in Station Street, right in the heart of the area lit upon by an alliance of skyscraper-dazzled government planners, big-time developers and Chinese money to turn streets of shops in a Melbourne suburb into their version of Shanghai. Gleaming iridescent towers of apartments, all fully Feng Shui-compliant no doubt, and all ludicrously out of proportion to the original buildings among which they sprout, have increased the population density twenty-fold. Even on Sunday mornings, the district around St Paul’s is jammed with traffic, and this is a principal reason for the church being sold. Many of its congregation come from considerable distances (Lutheran churches in Melbourne are scattered) and need their cars to get there, but as the church’s website puts it, a “survey of the congregation in 2015 found that worshippers were already finding it more difficult to travel along Station Street and find a convenient park.” Since then the jams have got worse every time a new masterpiece in the Asian International style rears its obtrusive bulk over Box Hill’s crowded hub.
St Paul’s was designed by Melbourne architect P. J. O”Connor, most of whose work was for Roman Catholic churches (St Roch’s, Glen Iris, St Thérèse, Ballarat). It was opened and dedicated on 11 April 1954. The style is postwar cream-brick simplified Neo-Gothic. Nave and chancel are under one long steep tiled roof, with short lateral gabled vestries at the west end, where the chancel is. At the south-east corner are the base and crenellated first stage of a tower with a porch and entrance at ground level. The west front, with a trefoil window, looks incomplete. Were its small doors intended to lead into an extension beneath the window? Most of the other windows have segmental arches. The east end on Station Street has windows in the form of a stylised cross let into the brickwork, with a central glazed roundel and glazed arms. These are not remotely Neo-Gothic. Neither is the more recent flat-roofed two-storey extension of hall and offices to the north, with a vaguely Post-Modern canopy over the windows and garages below.
St Paul’s and its ancillary buildings were sold in 2018 (for $29.5 million!) but remained open by agreement until March this year. The church has been deconsecrated and emptied of its fittings. The buildings will be demolished in the next year or two.
Though not a building of particular distinction, this church ought to be missed when it goes. Churches glimpsed down canyons of tall buildings contribute a civilising note. They invite reflection on less transitory things than the getting and spending of commercial and real estate ventures. What would Wall Street be like without Trinity Church, or the City of London without its churches by Wren? And what pressure to sell must they have been under over the years?
The St Paul’s congregation has moved to Box Hill South, to a church that would have been at risk if they hadn’t bought it. This is the former St James’s Uniting church in Riversdale Road, a light-filled airy building that opened as a Presbyterian church in 1964. It was designed by Chancellor & Patrick in the low, angular uncluttered style with lateral clerestory and sloping roofs they also applied to their domestic architecture.