CECIL STREET, WILLIAMSTOWN
A fine tower on an historic church.
St Andrew’s is a substantial church with a tower of great dignity and noble proportions. It stands in well-kept grounds and looks, if one can say this of a building, rock solid. But the correspondent who suggested that I write about it told me that St Andrew’s is not in a healthy state in terms of attendance. He was at a service, he said, in pre-pandemic times when the congregation consisted of the minister’s family – in a church that would easily seat 200.
Perhaps that particular Sunday was an exception, but Williamstown is just the kind of place where church attendances decline as the economic status of the residents moves up. It was always quite well-to-do, but in a respectable nineteenth-century God-fearing way. These days the religion of the people who move into the expensively remodelled, enlarged or new-built houses would seem to be that of the body, worshipped through yoga, attendance at the gym and endless cups of coffee at tables in the street. It is not Christianity, and certainly not the Presbyterian variety.
So one must hope for the best. For now the church remains, and maintains a website, which is some indication that it is not yet moribund.
St Andrew’s is two buildings. The first is a long rectangular nave, slate-roofed, with lancet windows, prominent buttresses and cement dressings built of rough-cut bluestone in 1870-1871. This replaced a bluestone church of ten years earlier, which had to be demolished because of defects in the masonry. The architect of the rebuilding was Lloyd Tayler (1830-1900), a name that could be relied on for an imposing design in the Melbourne architectural world of his day: his other works include the South Yarra Presbyterian church, the former Free Presbyterian (now Salvation Army) church in East St Kilda, St Mary’s Anglican church in North Melbourne, and grandest accomplishment of all, the great Renaissance dome of the former Commercial Bank of Australia in Collins Street, an interior which it’s not too fanciful to compare with the Pantheon in Rome. Tayler designed it in partnership with Alfred Dunn in 1891 and it was well restored in 1990 when it was incorporated into a new building.
The nave of St Andrew’s is of six bays with a plain south end. The end wall is pierced by a single stained-glass roundel. A temporary-looking concrete vestry with tiled roof abuts it.
The second building at St Andrew’s is the tower, added to the front of the church in 1934 (when the congregation must have been flourishing). The architects were Taylor, Soilleux and Overend, of whom Best Overend (1909-1977) was known as an imaginative modernist. While with Taylor and Soilleux he designed a modernist landmark, the Cairo flats in Nicholson Street, Fitzroy. The firm also specialised in designing cinemas, for which there was then much demand, though only their Rivoli in Camberwell still exists.
There is nothing modernist about the tower on St Andrew’s. It is an inspired design in Late Gothic idiom, dramatically detailed, with white cement dressings against the dark bluestone structure. It is square in plan, with buttressed corners, and rises through two stages above a porch with side entrances. A traceried window that lights the porch stands out for its English Decorated detailing, complete with hood moulds, a decorative device with the original practical purpose of deflecting the rain. This window is whimsically unlike the windows of the upper levels of the tower or those on the body of the church.
The stages of the tower are separated by wide cement bands. Each upper stage contains windows. Those of the middle stage are in the form of an arcade with moulded arches with transoms, corbelled hood moulds above and a row of blind quatrefoils below. Those in the upper stage are plainer and louvred. There are four windows in each group on the north (the front of the church) and the east, and two on the west, where the side of the tower is narrower on account of the stair turret that fills the angle between the tower and the nave. The turret has a door at ground level and Gothic slit windows at each upper stage. Inside, a winding stairway leads to the top of the tower. The battlemented top of the turret is taller than the tower, which has smaller turrets at the other corners, linked by a pierced parapet with another row of blind quatrefoils below it. A single pinnacle divides the parapet at the front.
All in all, the tower is a rich and satisfying structure to which the body of the church, less detailed, acts as a foil. It would be tragic to see this fine piece of architecture hacked up into apartments, or whatever use closure would have in store for it.
ALL PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANTHONY BAILEY (unless otherwise noted)