CORNER LOWER HEIDELBERG ROAD AND KING STREET, EAST IVANHOE
Valuable site: the East Ivanhoe Uniting church and its land were sold for more than $11 million.
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 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?
St Andrew’s Uniting, formerly Presbyterian, church at Rokewood was built in 1866, in bluestone with freestone dressings to a design by Alexander Davidson. The spire, with its unusual adaptation of a broach at the base and canopied upper openings, was added in 1905. The building is now for sale.
When I wrote the entry on St Patrick’s, Rokewood, in February 2021 I noted that there was another church in the same township that was still open for services, This is St Andrew’s, Rokewood’s Uniting, formerly Presbyterian church.
I spoke too soon.
St Andrew’s has now been advertised for sale, though mercifully for once without all the demeaning cracks about heavenly living and a bargain to pray for which constitute estate agents’ ideas of wit and disfigure most advertisements for ecclesiastical property.
In that earlier post I wrote that “Rokewood also has a notable Uniting, formerly Presbyterian, church, bluestone with a spire. It was built in 1866 with the spire added in 1905. Given that the Uniting Church is also a keen disposer of its rural buildings, one must hope it remains viable.” That last sentence, if I say it myself, was prescient.
The architect of St Andrew’s was Alexander Davidson, who also designed the Presbyterian (now Uniting) and Methodist (now sold) churches at Mortlake further west and the handsome Presbyterian church at Werribee, which contains a great rarity in this country, a family pew for the owners of the local stately home (Werribee Park). Davidson designed the Rokewood church in English Decorated style on a Latin Cross plan with equal-length nave, transepts and chancel. The bluestone is set off with freestone dressings and the windows are plate-traceried. The design of the spire is unlike any I have seen, It rises eight-sided out of broaches, above which a projecting band runs round it surmounted by Gothic canopies above which again the shaft continues its upward course.
That this church, so clearly intended to be a local landmark at the centre of its village, will be turned into a gallery or a restaurant, as some potential buyers have suggested, or worse, someone’s “quirky” house, its slate roofs carved up into solar panels, is an insult to its dignity and architectural quality. And all for, says the ad, a top price of $465,000. Surely the Uniting Church isn’t as hard up as all that. It’s sold dozens of churches and ploughed the proceeds into its capital funds. Couldn’t it spare a bit to keep this particularly accomplished building open and in repair? Couldn’t it think twice about privatising a public space and depriving a small community of its architectural heart?
The other consideration I’ve made elsewhere I’ll make again. To sell an under-used church that’s little more than a timber hall with pointed windows makes no great impact visually, though it’s a pity just the same. But to sell a solid imposing church with a spire that announces to all the world that this is not just any building but a church is counterproductive to Christian mission. It proclaims to everyone who sees it, as though the words were written in neon lights, “Forget about Christianity. We’ve gone out of business.”
Not out of the business of selling churches though. There’ll be plenty more.
(FORMERLY PRESBYTERIAN, NOW UNITING) CORNER BURKE AND MALVERN ROADS, GARDINER
An inner-city church rebuilt on a new site.
Is this beautiful bluestone church at risk or not? It is hard to say. A notice on its former website says its congregation was “disbanded” on 10 April 2016 and that the church would become the “permanent spiritual home” of an Indonesian congregation who’d migrated in from the eastern suburb of Mulgrave. They are still there, with one service each Sunday. But how permanent is “permanent’? Ethnic congregations are by nature eclectic – how many Indonesians live in prosperous Anglo Gardiner? – and have a habit of dissolving or moving elsewhere, as this one already has. But as long as they are in possession St Andrew’s can probably be regarded as safe.
The Uniting Church has several Indonesian congregations in Victoria (another is at St Stephen’s, North Caulfield) and they appear to be enthusiastically attended. St Andrew’s has around 250 members, which includes a few elderly survivors of its previous (English-speaking) congregation. There is a Sunday morning service in English but it is held in the hall, since the main Indonesian service is at the same time.
How that earlier congregation declined in number would make a case study to illustrate the overall collapse of Protestant churchgoing in the last thirty or forty years. I have written about it in the introduction to this website and elsewhere* and need not go into it again here. Suffice to say that St Andrew’s was once full every Sunday. Gardiner, which is part of high-priced East Malvern, was typically fertile ground for the kind of upright, undemonstratively pious, family-oriented Christianity that used to flourish throughout well-to-do middle-class Australia. One wonders, when observing the standards of public life today, whether the kind of people who practised it still exist.
An interesting point about St Andrew’s is that it has seen decline before. It used to be in Rathdowne Street, Carlton, on the corner of Queensberry Street, where it was built in 1855 as St Andrew’s Gaelic church, Free Church of Scotland by denomination. Carlton in those days was rather grand, but as Melbourne grew, industry and institutions moved in and many residents moved out. By the time of the Depression the church was redundant, and with another Presbyterian church two blocks away (the Erskine Church, now demolished) it was decided to close it. Dismantling it, moving it stone by stone and redesigning it to become Gardiner’s Presbyterian church in 1939 was a stroke of inspiration (a stroke that struck twice, since the Presbyterian – now like St Andrew’s, Uniting –church at Box Hill is a similar 1930s transplant). In Gardiner, an ideal site was found, on the upper side of a hill in the Gardiner’s Creek valley, overlooking the crossing of two main roads. With the clock on its square tower, a less common feature in Australia than in England, it could almost be an English village church on the edge of a green.
The architect of the Gaelic church is not recorded, but it hardly matters because St Andrew’s as it stands bears little relation to that church beyond the inherited building materials and some furnishings inside. It was redesigned by architects Scarborough, Robertson and Love, who are perhaps best known in Victoria for the Littlejohn Memorial Chapel at Scotch College. The Gaelic church had been cruciform, but they reconstructed it as the new St Andrew’s without the transepts. The redesigned tower was placed in its original position at the front but the nave behind it was extended to five bays with a short chancel for the elders’ stalls and communion table. A two-bay chapel with clerestory, an organ chamber and projecting vestries are on the north. The tower, originally thinnish with corner pinnacles, acquired a solid buttressed prominence; it was made broader than the original and square-topped without the pinnacles and is capped by a weathervane. There are double louvred bell openings on the upper stage, the clock with a face on three sides, and entrance porch with steps at the lowest level.
Windows and other openings are in plain Early English style with hood moulds. The roof is of slate. With its rough-cut bluestone catching the sunlight in the manner of wavelets on the sea, St Andrew’s is an exceptionally satisfying building. It stands in well-kept and unfenced shrubby grounds and looks like what it unfortunately no longer is, the very centre of its community.
One more disposal in what looks like a clearance sale.
The Roman Catholic authorities in Ballarat are at it again, selling off a perfectly good solid church building which will now be mutilated architecturally by being put to some secular use, probably as someone’s house. They’d hardly got the very handsome St Thomas Aquinas’s at Clunes off their hands – an act of cultural vandalism if ever there was one – when St Patrick’s, Rokewood, was on the market. The church was put up for auction at the request of the parish priest, who had been obliged to drive the 50 kilometres or so from his other church in Ballarat to celebrate a monthly Mass there. He’ll now not have to bother. The dozen or so people who made up the congregation will do the travelling instead, to their nearest church at Linton, 32 kilometres away, as long as that lasts. They could have gone to Springdallah, which is a bit nearer, but that was sold a couple of years ago and has already been given the usual treatment and put to domestic use.
The congregation was adduced as a reason for the Rokewood sale, in that, according to the parish priest, “[l]ow numbers and the effort required to ready the building for a monthly Mass were taking its toll on the small community.” It’s hard to see what “toll” that would have been, and wouldn’t they have preferred to keep their local church?
Rokewood is a township of around 200 people south of Ballarat. St Patrick’s, on a wide block as you enter the town from the north, is a plain Gothic Revival building in red brick and cement render with a slate roof. It’s largish for a small township, with a long nave of five bays and separate chancel with lateral sacristies. It’s also, as churches go, not that old. The foundation stone was laid on 16 October 1927.
The building is of simple design and has some attractive details, such as the sets of three lancet windows above the entrance porch and on the (liturgical) east wall of the chancel. The tripartite theme is repeated under the upper section of the front gable by a boxed half-timbered panel supported on corbels. This gives the façade a faintly non-ecclesiastical look. The external walls are handsomely buttressed. The church has eaves rather than parapets, unusual in a Gothic Revival building.
The Catholic diocese of Ballarat needs to take its responsibility as custodian of country churches more seriously. It has sold at least five recently in what looks like a clearance sale of churches it no longer wishes to maintain. Already this year the pretty stone church at Macarthur in the Western District has gone. We know that the countryside is depopulated and that fewer people go to church but are these sales really worth it compared to what is lost? They inevitably result in the disfigurement of a building that earlier generations paid for, measured the course of their lives in with baptisms, weddings and funerals, and carefully looked after. Once a church is sold, various unsuitable domestic accoutrements are tacked on in the form of solar panels, glazed extensions and coolie-hat-capped iron chimneys in the manner of that depicted by nursery-rhyme illustrators on the old woman who lived in a shoe’s residence. These ruin the appearance of the exterior, while the inside is partitioned up – even though there never seems to be a way of exorcising a chill echo that permeates the cavernous nave-cum-living room. If you want to see the hideous things people do to secularised churches look at the Facebook page on “Churches for Sale”. Frankly, it would less of an affront to the integrity and, indeed, the sanctity of a church to pull it down.
Or in the case of architecturally valuable churches, such as the very fine St Joseph’s, Blampied, unused but happily still unsold, if they must be closed, give a key to a sympathetic neighbour, lock the church, ensure essential maintenance and hold on to the building against demographic change. Some country towns are growing again – Clunes is a case in point – and the time may come when the church can be reopened. In the meantime, as the Anglicans have found at Rupanyup, it will sometimes be requested for weddings and funerals.
The Catholic diocese of Ballarat, though, is perhaps a special case. It needs the money from the sale of churches and other property (the presbytery at Linton was up for sale at the same time as the Rokewood church), mainly to pay vast sums to the “victims” of clerical child sexual abusers of the past, who made up for their limited numbers by the scale of their offending. (Why it needs also to perpetuate these unhappy events with a proposed “memorial” at the Ballarat cathedral is a mystery, unless it be to try to ingratiate itself with the influential and aggressive “survivor” lobby in Ballarat, most of whom are secularists and unlikely to be placated by anything the Church might do anyway. Besides, there have been no cases of abuse in the Ballarat diocese for over two decades. Better to leave past sins in the past and move on.)
Rokewood will not be the last of these sales. We shall watch with concern where next in the Ballarat diocese the blow will fall.
The last ten years or so have been bad enough for churches in urban Victoria, with closures planned or effected, but in the country they have been disastrous. Scores of churches have shut down, as rural populations decline and townships are turned into ghosts of themselves. In remoter places everything has gone: the school, the banks, the trains (long ago), the shops and even the pubs. A poky general store-cum-supermarket may well be the one place open in a street of empty, slowly collapsing shopfronts. Fewer families live on farms. Many have given up farming and gone away, and their land added to already much bigger and mechanised farms run like industries.
The Covid pestilence was the last straw for many country churches, locked up never to be reopened. But even before, churches were being abandoned one after another as remaining country residents become too old and too few to form a congregation, and their sons and daughters, like younger generations everywhere, lose interest in churchgoing. Country people were once noted for their support of the local church of their denomination, but the prevailing indifference to religion in our time has detached them, just as in the cities and towns, from the places of worship their parents and forebears attended.
In some cases those forebears paid for the church building, and occasionally a particularly well-to-do and devout parishioner would pay for a church grander than the congregation could otherwise have afforded. St James’s, Morrisons, is an example of this, as is St Philip the Evangelist in the Wimmera township of Rupanyup, 289 kilometres from Melbourne. Rupanyup has a population of not much more than 500, but its Anglican church would be an ornament to a town ten times that size.
This handsome church was paid for by the wealthy Campbell family, owners of vast tracts of land in the district. No expense would seem to have been spared, and architect Louis Williams (1890-1980), renowned for his country and city churches in many parts of Victoria and New South Wales, was commissioned for the design. The result, in his unique version of Arts and Crafts Gothic, is splendid, and is complete with the tower which on too many of Williams’s churches was left unbuilt for lack of funds. The church is not large but is far more imposing than any other building in the township. To see the tower rise up in silhouette as you drive across the dusty wheatlands and enter the wide main street of Rupanyup seems unbelievable: St Philip’s is simply not the sort of building you would expect to find in such a place and is comparable with Williams’s best work in Melbourne.
The foundation stone was laid by Mrs Frances Louise Campbell on 14 February 1935. The church is on a cruciform plan with buttressed nave and chancel and with vestries instead of transepts. The south (liturgical west) end has a shallow apsidal baptistery, a favourite Williams motif. The north (liturgical east) wall is blank beneath an intricate rose window high up, a familiar piece of visual dramatics in a Williams church. The nave is four bays long, with a lateral main entrance at the south-east through a porch in the base of the tower and plain double doors on the opposite side. The building materials are brown brick for the walls and red-brown tiles for the roof.
The tower is about 18 metres high and consists of a plain lower stage to the height of the nave roof ridge and a buttressed upper stage set back from the lower walls on a plinth. The lower stage has single slit windows on each face, the upper stage a pair of bell openings on each face and a crenellated parapet above.
The windows are characteristic of Williams. The chancel is lit by, along with the rose window, paired lateral windows with glass in the upper openings and decorative metal grilles in the lower. The apsidal baptistery has single windows with segmental heads high up on each plane. The nave windows are Tudor-arched and divided by concrete transoms so that the lower panes open for ventilation. The leading in the windows, a geometrical pattern of pointed arches, was designed by the architect, whose attention to detail is apparent throughout the church. The hand-beaten metal door handles are worth noting in this regard.
The internal reality is sad. This is a Marie Celeste of a church: everything is in order except that no one’s there, even on Sunday, since there are now no regular services, though this will change after the pandemic, and weddings and funerals still occasionally take place. Pews, font, lectern are all intact; the altar still has its cloth and candlesticks, though the brass is tarnished, as are the memorial plaques on the walls. There would once have been a ladies’ guild to attend to this. Rupanyup was an independent parish until about 20 years ago and there is a “new” (in 1966) cream-brick vicarage beside the church, an unhappy contrast to Williams’s design and now let. Today the rector lives 46 kilometres away in Horsham and such worship as there is is led by two indomitable local women who are also the congregation and church cleaners.
The building looks structurally sound from without but, inside, menacing cracks have appeared in the walls beside the chancel arch, probably caused by settlement because of drought; an earlier repair on the opposite wall has begun to open up again. How repairs could be paid for is anyone’s guess, yet they must be if the church is not to fall into disuse. And if it did, then what? Demolition or conversion to another purpose? Perhaps fortunately, its complex internal space would seem ill-adapted to be turned into someone’s house, which would be a humiliation for a building of this quality and for the town it serves.
That this is a church which must be preserved is easier said than done. How long will that fine tower stand tall above the wide flat Wimmera paddocks stretching to the horizon?
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.
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)
It never augurs well for a church’s future when it loses its parochial autonomy. St Agnes’s, Glen Huntly, is now administered from St John’s, East Malvern, a parish which is returning to its nineteenth-century extensiveness, having several years ago had part of the demolished All Saints’, East Malvern’s parish attached to it as well. St Agnes’s has been at risk of closure more than once. Whether the new arrangement will keep it open remains to be seen.
Let’s hope it does, because this is a very fine and unusual church. The foundation stone was laid in 1924, when the brick and stucco villas and villa pairs were expanding over the market gardens of the new suburb of Glen Huntly (sometimes written Glenhuntly). Parish and church grew up together, but now that the demographic character of Glen Huntly has become less Anglo the link is weakening, the congregation has shrunk and the parish can no longer run to its own vicar.
St Agnes’s was designed by the firm of Grainger, Little, Barlow and Hawkins, of which Marcus Barlow (1890-1954) is best known for the Manchester Unity Building in central Melbourne, a splendid essay in what might be termed Perpendicular Gothic Moderne. For St Agnes’s, the style selected was a simplified Neo-Romanesque. This is most evident in the tower with its louvred upper stage – the bell chamber – and low pyramidal roof and in the projecting apsidal baptistery at its base. The general effect is reminiscent of the architecture of Ravenna.
Entrance to the church is through lateral doors in the porches beside the base of the tower. These open into a narthex that runs the width of the church, past the baptistery and the bell rope that hangs down through a hole in the boss of the plaster vault under the tower. On Sundays you could hear the tinkling note of the bell all over Glen Huntly.
St Agnes’s is built of red brick, beautifully laid, with cement dressings. In plan it consists of porch, nave and apsidal chancel, large enough to have once contained choir stalls, and transepts housing vestries. The architects intended that side aisles should be added later to accommodate a larger congregation. If you look closely you can see that around the paired windows of each bay of the nave is an arched layer of cement. This was designed to be easily removed, along with the windows and section of wall beneath the window, to reveal the arches – already in place – of what would have been the arcades separating the nave from the side aisles. The upper lunettes above a corbelled string course that would have become the clerestory.
Inside, the walls are of exposed brick, except in the chancel where they have been rendered and painted off-white. The contrast is dramatic, and made more so by the grand brick arch that divides the two spaces. The polygonal apse is attractive for its discreet use if colour, with a fine representation of the Last Supper in opus sectile on the east wall and stained glass in the simple arched windows of the lateral walls standing out brightly against the chaste off-white background.
There is good use of timber in the church, especially in the ceiling linings, which are varnished v-jointed timber in faceted and diagonally opposed panels between the exposed curved lower chords of the trusses. There used to be a fine pulpit and tester but they were removed by a vicar who carried out an unnecessary and insensitive re-ordering in the 1980s. Their fate is not known. The carved eagle lectern lost its base at the same time and the font was brought into the nave from the baptistery, which was thereby reduced to a purposeless alcove. The wrought iron cancelli at the entrance to the chancel and the choir stalls had been dismantled in an earlier reordering and the cancelli are now outside enclosing a garden for ashes. The Anglican Church used to pride itself on the care of its churches and faculties were necessary for alterations to fabric and furnishings to guard against aesthetically blind renovations of this sort. Was a faculty given for any of the tinkering and worse that went on at St Agnes’s?
The 1980s reordering represented one stage in the building’s liturgical history, which has been consistently Anglo-Catholic ranging from the mildly High in earlier years via the ultramontane and the 1960s “Parish and People” movement (nemesis of the choir stalls and cancelli) to the liberal modern in recent years. At one point the church was promoted as a place for gays and lesbians to rejoice in their God-given “diversity”.
In its earlier days St Agnes’s was something of an anomaly, a thriving parish with busy Sunday School, many vocations to the ministry and much social activity in the form of tennis club and missionary teas yet poorly attended services. The services are still poorly attended but the social life has gone, the tennis courts have long since been built over and the parish of Glen Huntly is itself in need of mission. Yet the church survives and should be kept at all costs.
When a church ceases to be used for the primary purpose for which it was built you start to wonder how long it will continue to exist as a building. I don’t mean that it will be instantly torn down, or sold on the sly (to forestall parishioners’ protests) to become a Heavenly Pizzas franchise. But if it is no longer needed for church services, any use to which it is put will almost invariably be one that could be just as conveniently fulfilled by an entirely secular building. And if the church has a hall beside it, designed for all those other things that take place in a parish apart from liturgical worship, what use is the church itself when closed for services? What is the point of keeping it?
This risks being the case at the Dromana Uniting church. The complex of buildings still carries that label, in large letters on the front, but the church has not been used for services since 2014. It is now known, at least verbally, as the Dromana Uniting Welcome Centre. In normal times, i.e. before the China virus pandemic, the buildings welcomed children to a playgroup during the week and “seniors” to free lunches. But not to church. Church services are held at Rosebud, five kilometres away, at what is now called the Southern Peninsula Uniting church. The other principal denominations have active churches in Dromana, but the Uniting Church has pulled out.
The Dromana Uniting church was built as a Methodist place of worship on land given by the Rudduck family, local store owners and keen Methodists. Their imposing house, now in other hands, is a landmark next door. The existing church is the successor to a small timber church on the site, now demolished.
The foundation stone of the new church and hall was laid on 29 May 1965, about the time that the Peninsula crescent from Mornington around to Rye was beginning to acquire a large permanent population of retired folk to augment its summer holiday influx. The Dromana Methodist congregation was subsumed, along with the rest of the Methodist Church of Australasia, into the Uniting Church in 1977.
The group of buildings is a good example of the ecclesiastical modernism in vogue in the latter part of the twentieth century. The design is simple and rational. Church and hall are linked by a blank-walled porch which gives access to both. The low pitched roof of the hall yields primacy to the church with its higher, steeper pitch. The main façade, that of the church, is pierced by a single window finishing in the gable and emphasising the verticality of the design. The hall has clerestory windows which, together with the shallow roof, emphasise its horizontality and subordination to the church as the principal element in the group.
On either side of its central window the church façade is slightly canted inwards, away from the window. Wide hoodlike frontal eaves project progressively further as they rise higher towards the gable. These partly screen the window when the sun is the east and create a pleasant matutinal chiaroscuro as the shadow moves up the wall.
Church, porch and hall are faced with pinkish tapestry brick.
I have been unable to find the name of the architect. A curiosity is that the church has a certain resemblance to the Anglican church of All Saints’ at Rosebud, particularly in the projecting gable and eaves. That church was built about two years earlier than that at Dromana and was designed by Wystan Widdows (see St Stephen’s, Highett) and David Caldwell. Could they have designed the Dromana Uniting church as well? If not, could it be the work of Chancellor & Patrick, who were prominent on the Mornington Peninsula for their domestic designs?
Set on its large and prominent block on the Nepean Highway, looking across to the sea, the Dromana Uniting church and hall, together with the imposing house next door, add interest to a dreary stretch of streetscape, the fag end of the Dromana shopping strip. One must hope that the function of “welcome centre” remains sufficiently appreciated for the owners to resist the temptation to cash in on the value of the site. It would be a pity to see church and hall pulled down to make way for yet more shops or holiday flats.
This church is not at risk, nor was it ever a completed church, but I include it as a curio of rural architecture. For 86 years it was one of the few genuine ruins accessible from Melbourne.
Holy Trinity, or the “half church”, as it is locally known – though it is less than half of what was planned – was built for the Church of England between 1875 and 1877. Building stopped abruptly once the apse and a lateral structure on the south, intended as an organ chamber and vestry, were ready for use. The completed church would have been handsome and substantial. Perhaps in those days Greendale, which also had a pub, a primary school and a now utterly vanished Roman Catholic church, showed signs of greater growth than eventually came to pass. (The cemetery opposite the church is an indication: it’s only ten per cent full.)
Greendale is literally a green dale, a pretty valley with clumps of native and European trees giving cool shade in summer. The pub is still there but apart from the “half church” not much else from those early days. The population is growing again, as evidenced by showy new houses, each replete with decks and picture windows, that now encrust the hills above the township. The Victorian government, too, which cannot abide unspoiled countryside, is planning to do its bit to wreck the prospect, with a proposed series of towers and powerlines striding across the landscape. Local opposition is strong and wants the power lines underground but one fears that Spring Street philistinism will turn out to be stronger, as, combined with climate credulity, it has already with its construction of endless “wind farms” all over the hills and valleys to the south of Greendale.
This fragment of a church was designed by Frederick Wyatt, architect of the imposing Anglican church at Bacchus Marsh, 22 kilometres away (also Holy Trinity and built concurrently) and the country mansion Greystones, south of that town. At Greendale he had planned a Gothic building to accommodate a congregation of more than 200, an ambitious undertaking even by the standards of those more devout days. About a third of the ￡582 it cost to build the apse and organ chamber was raised by a three-day bazaar in nearby Myrniong (which has a diminutive and pretty Anglican church) and the rest locally; but then the funds ran out.
Wyatt was a promising architect who died at the age of 35 the year after the Greendale church was consecrated by the Bishop of Ballarat on 23 August 1877. The local magistrate, Mr Charles Shuter of La Cote homestead (now demolished) took over as honorary architect but in the event Holy Trinity progressed no further westwards than the graceful chancel arch, where a “temporary” timber wall was put up, and is still there. What would have been the capitals of the chancel pilasters project on either side of the arch.
The five-sided apse, with lancet windows in three sides, is distinguished by its rough elegance, an impression reinforced by the slight concavity of the iron roof. The walls are of local golden-brown freestone blocks and were built by stonemason David Pierpoint of Ballan.
During the half-century that the church was in use, up to fifty people were able to crowd in and there were seldom fewer than eighteen attenders. But Greendale declined, the congregations thinned, and services ceased in 1924. Furnishings were removed and the building fell into disrepair. In 1964 the Anglican Church sold the land and the unfinished church became a hayshed. For many years it was a ghostly ruin with crumbling walls and rusty roof – just the place to get a creepy thrill if you explored it at night by torchlight.
The property was sold again in 2010 and bought by new owners who began the task of restoring it. By this time the stonework was much deteriorated. Storms caused further damage and the owners were able to obtain a grant of $66,000 from the federal (Labor) government to help with the project. Decayed and missing stone blocks in the walls have been replaced, the exterior walls have been repointed and a buttress added at the north-west corner. A blocked door into the vestry has been reopened and the chancel windows filled with clear glass. The restoration was completed in 2013 and the building is available for use again – not of course as a church but as a “community space”.
PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY (unless otherwise noted)