A noble bell tower with no bell.

Auburn Uniting church: a tower with a church attached, as Mark Twain might have put it.

This remarkable building might have been designed as a variation on Mark Twain’s description of Maryborough and its grandiose railway station – a “station with a town attached”. This is a tower with a church attached. No Methodist understatement here, no evangelical wariness of stateliness and statement. The Auburn Uniting church, or specifically its great campanile, soars over the suburb around it in a display of architectural power. The power as so often with religious buildings today is largely visual: the church, though reasonably well attended, could hold many more than those who turn up on a normal Sunday, so that its influence on most of the people living around it is largely aesthetic. Yet the church survives and is well cared for. 

Part of the façade showing the open arch.
The main entrance with its elaborate pediment.

It was built between 1888 and 1891 for Auburn’s Wesleyan Methodists to a design by the talented but short-lived Alfred Dunn. Born in Devon, Dunn did his articles there and arrived in Australia aged seventeen in 1882, setting up practice in Melbourne three years later and becoming an associate of the Victorian Institute of Architects, though curiously for a gifted designer, he failed to be elected to a fellowship. He entered designs in various architectural competitions, designed several notable houses, and in due course won a competition for the commission offered by the Wesleyans for their new church at Auburn. About the same time he was commissioned to build the Wesleyan (now Greek Orthodox) church at Preston, a rather showy design in Neo-Gothic. Dunn is also known for his collaboration with Lloyd Tayler, a specialist in grand projects, on the interiors of the Commercial Banking Company of Australia’s Collins Street office with its splendid domed ceiling , completed in 1890 and now preserved within a later reconstruction.

Alfred Dunn’s original 1888 drawing as submitted for the competition to design the church. As a conventionally cruciform building with side aisles to the nave and a rose window on the main façade it differs considerably from the church as built. The design of the tower is largely identical, although it is placed at the south-east corner of the church rather than at the south-west..

Dunn died very young, from tuberculosis, in 1894 when he was 29. His inventiveness and originality is well displayed in the church at Auburn, and it is intriguing to think what works it might have led to had he lived longer.

The foundation stone.

Methodists and other non-conformists were numerous and influential in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs in the late nineteenth century (the “local option” laws, by which public bars were not permitted in those districts, were largely due to their weight in local politics) and by the 1880s the Hawthorn Methodist circuit, of which Auburn was a part, was the largest in Victoria. It already had a church but found it needed a bigger one. A new site was found on the hill at Auburn, where Dunn designed a church to seat 600. His ingenious design does the site full justice. It would be hard to find a better place to build a tower 30 metres high, visible from a great way off and giving views, from an upper gallery which is sometimes open to visitors, all over Melbourne’s eastern suburbs

The church from the north-west. Both transept facades have tall three-light windows with circular upper openings. 

Dunn’s design is in northern Italian Romanesque, very freely adapted, and making much use of polychromatic brickwork, mainly red and brown.

The church ground plan is approximately square, with low pitched roofs in the form of a Greek cross delineating a short nave and transepts and a lower and plainer chancel. The three principal gabled façades have tall round-headed triple-light windows with circular upper openings, and on the main façade an open arch with balustrade on either side.

The body of the church is in the auditorium form favoured by Methodists, with the seating arranged as in a theatre, with a direct view, unimpeded by internal columns, of the pulpit, organ and choir. This was a forerunner of the church-in-the-round plan advocated in the 1930s by the European liturgical movement, and implemented (some would say to excess) particularly in the Roman Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council.  

The interior, cream-painted, is not at all what you would expect from outside. It looks rather municipal, with classical pilasters, transomed ceiling and a proscenium arch framing the chancel with its sanctuary set forward of the choir seats and organ. The organ has been in the church since its opening in 1889. It was built by Fincham & Hobday and has been several times extended and restored.

The tower is at the south-west corner of the building and is twice as high as the church. It rises in four stages, with a tall four-arched open loggia as the upper stage, capped by a steep pyramidal roof. Though in the form of a campanile, it has never contained a campana, bells not being part of the Methodist tradition.

The tower, 30 metres high, lends Romanesque grandeur to a quiet suburban street.

Dunn designed the two adjacent buildings, the large Sunday School hall to the north, which is used for a variety of community activities, and the two-storeyed parsonage to the east, which, still lived in by the minister and his family, must be one of the very largest clerical residences in Australia remaining in use for its original purpose.  

The church from the north, with its spacious grounds. The north end,
which forms a rudimentary chancel, is plain externally.

The church remained Methodist until absorption in the Uniting Church in 1977. It has excellent acoustics and frequent organ and other musical events are held. In addition to maintenance by its regular congregation, a voluntary group called the Friends of the Auburn Tower, formed in 2004, supports it with fund-raising and various activities.

This church is not at risk as long as its congregation can maintain it (though you never know with the Uniting Church and its mania for selling off property). It is certainly not at risk of demolition, but is perhaps not so safe from secularisation. Not much imagination is needed to see it transformed into a concert hall – a function it already fills from time to time – or even, with an expansionist university just around the corner, a hall for graduations and academic events. Anyone who thinks churches should be churches (or town hall town halls and post offices post offices) will find that prospect unappealing.  

The south, or principal façade of the Auburn Uniting church. Note the twin open arches which give the façade a sense of depth.


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