CARDIGAN PLACE, ALBERT PARK
The post-Christian era in plain view.
If you want to see what the post-Christian era looks like, Bridport Street in Melbourne’s rich respectable seaside suburb of Albert Park is a one-stop exhibition. At each end of this thronged street stands a large and imposing brick church. At the eastern end is St Silas’s, a soaring building with the loftiest nave of any Anglican church in Victoria apart from St Paul’s Cathedral. It was designed to have an octagonal tower and spire 55 metres high and would have been the masterpiece of the great church architect Louis Williams (1890-1980). But the spire wasn’t built and the church itself was only two-thirds finished when money ran out in the Depression and work stopped. The raw edges of its incomplete state were unsympathetically smoothed off in the 1970s with a patched up south transept and modernistic west end utterly out of harmony with the original design. At the same time the interior proportions were ruined by the insertion of a mezzanine floor to form a church hall below the nave, the original separate hall having been pulled down to make money for the parish with a service station on the site.
At the western end of Bridport Street is the also imposing if less lofty Albert Park Methodist church. It is red brick (with yellow stripes) instead of the brown brick of St Silas’s and in a conventional Neo-Gothic instead of Williams’s trademark Modern Perpendicular as exemplified in St Silas’s, but there is a more important difference. St Silas’s, though it hardly appears flourishing, is open for services, its parish having been expanded some years ago to incorporate that of St Anselm’s, Middle Park, now turned into apartments. The Methodist church, on the other hand, is shut and has been unused for religious purposes since 1970.
Methodist churches suffered sorely with the formation of the Uniting Church in the 1970s. In the union of congregations many of their churches were made redundant and in most cases sold, usually to be carved up into flats, as was the Methodist church in Albert Park’s adjoining suburb of Middle Park. But the Albert Park church had closed even before that, partly because the Anglo character of the district began to fade after the war when European immigrants settled in the inner suburbs – the inner-suburban chic of today was still far in the future – and partly because Methodism was already in decline.
Until the 1950s Methodists were a denomination prominent beyond their numbers for their sense of identity, their social conscience and their good works. They were serious in the practice of their religion, and many Methodists went to church twice on Sunday and perhaps attended or taught in the Sunday School as well. But in the years after that their numbers dropped away as younger members of Methodist families gave up churchgoing. In due course those that were left were absorbed into the Uniting Church, and Methodism in Australia all but disappeared.
Sunday morning is the time to stroll from St Silas’s to the Methodist building to see how things have changed since those churches were new. A sprinkling of worshippers files out of St Silas’s at the end of Sung Eucharist while at the other end of the street, down in Cardigan Place, the Methodist church is empty. In between, the streets are packed with crowds of Sunday morning coffee-drinkers and brunchers cramming the footpaths at outdoor café tables. Their predecessors in Albert Park would have been in church, and the shops and cafés – such as there were – shut in respect for the Sabbath. No longer. Instead it is the worship of coffee that fills some of the function of a sacrament in the daily life of the contemporary urban Australian, transporting the drinker into communion with an imagined world of cosmopolitan sophistication, and nowhere is this better illustrated than in Bridport Street, Albert Park.
The foundation stone of the Albert Park Methodist church was laid on 10 December 1889 by John Danks (1828-1902), proprietor of the well-known plumbing firm, a devout Methodist and Sunday School teacher. His name is commemorated in a local street. The church was built as the Wesleyan Methodist church, Wesleyans being the principal branch of the denomination until Australian Methodists united in one church in 1902. It opened for services on 27 July 1890. There were people in Albert Park – some of them Methodist churchgoers no doubt – who were infants then and still alive to see the church closed eighty years later and sold to a private owner.
The architects of the church were Oakden, Addison & Kemp. They designed a capacious building with simple Gothic detailing against plainish brick walls. The red brick is relieved in places by herringbone patterning and bands of yellow, a typical motif in brick churches of the era. The church is cruciform in plan with wide transepts and connecting lean-to pavilions in the manner of side aisles in the angles of transepts and nave. Roofs are of slate and there is no central flêche, as might have been expected on a building on this scale.
The main front, facing east, has tall octagonal turrets at the corners and a group of three lancet windows above a projecting central porch. The lancets are framed with an ornamental inset arch in cement. The western arm of the cross is short and square-ended. Clad in weatherboards, it was intended to be temporary. It housed a raised choir gallery and organ with pulpit in front.
The church and its site have been incorporated into the grounds of the Albert Park Primary School which stands adjacent to it. At some time the church was renamed the David Hatherell Hall, after whom I do not know. The building has been emptied of its original fittings and is used at present for child-minding outside school hours.
Overall the church seems in good repair. Children’s voices in term time give it a kind of life but on Sundays it is an empty shell, as eloquent a symbol as you could find of a suburb’s slide into sterile secularism.
PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY