Valuable site: the East Ivanhoe Uniting church and
its land were sold for more than $11 million.

Sold but not yet demolished: the East Ivanhoe Uniting church was built in the early 1960s.

Here’s an illustration of how quickly churchgoing has declined in well-to-do suburbs where not long ago churches were at the centre of local life.

The East Ivanhoe Uniting church was built on a hilltop site in the early 1960s to replace a smaller brick church of 1941, still standing next to the new one, which the then Methodist congregation had outgrown. In 1977 the new building, like almost all other Methodist churches in Australia, passed to the Uniting Church. By the early years of this century the congregation had shrunk and the Uniting Church, feeling the pinch after heavy losses over an unsuccessful educational investment, decided to close the church and sell the site, at 5441 square metres a valuable one in a suburb as smart as East Ivanhoe. Four years ago they successfully did so; it brought $11.05 million. The purchaser was a “high-end” aged-care (the classy name for old folks’ homes) entrepreneur. There has evidently been some delay in getting the project started as church was still there in late April 2021 but fenced off, the usual prelude to demolition.

In two generations, then, this church had gone from full to closed down. The teenagers who attended its youth club when it was newly built were late middle-aged but not necessarily inactive by the time the church closed. Where had they gone? Certainly if they still lived in the district they were no longer going to this church on Sundays.

The East Ivanhoe Uniting church was designed by Bates, Smart and McCutcheon in a plain but pleasing functional style; it is very similar to the Methodist church they designed in Ashburton in 1961. Both have square towers (now encrusted with the near obligatory mobile phone paraphernalia). East Ivanhoe has a free-standing cross on top. Both churches are built of cream brick. Both churches consist of a lowish-roofed, shallow gabled nave on a rectangular plan. East Ivanhoe is lit by continuous clerestory windows under the eaves. There are no concessions to “ecclesiastical” ornament.

The plain square tower of the East Ivanhoe Uniting church. Church and tower are very similar to the Ashburton Uniting church designed by the same architects, Bates, Smart and McCutcheon.

The church at East Ivanhoe is one of three buildings on the site, sold en bloc together with the tennis courts that almost all suburban Protestant churches once had and which helped make them a hive of activity all weekend: Saturday afternoon tennis and a Saturday evening dance for the younger members of the congregation and church and Sunday School for everyone on the Sabbath. The other buildings are a substantial institutional-looking red-brick hall, also circa 1962, and the original 1941 church, which must have been one of the last buildings in the district to get a permit before war restrictions were imposed. It is pleasantly set back behind a garden and faces the side street. It too is built of red brick, with just that touch of Neo-Gothic in its design that proclaims it to anyone who has poked around churches for a bit to be a between-the-wars Methodist church.

This church has been let to a Chinese congregation but is now empty again. The site is not fenced off: does this mean it will be excluded on heritage grounds from the “redevelopment” of the rest of the site and retained as a “community hub”?

The artist Alan Sumner designed stained glass windows for the older church. Have they been removed?

The former Methodist church at East Ivanhoe, later replaced by the 1960s building.

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