ST AGNES’S, BLACK ROCK

(ANGLICAN)
ARKARINGA CRESCENT, BLACK ROCK

Rus in urbe beside the bay.

St Agnes’s, Black Rock, built in 1914. The flat-roofed extension is a 1970s addition.
Picture: Sandringham and DIstrict Historical Society http://www.manins.net.au/black-rock/stagnes_notes.html

St Agnes’s is a country church in a suburb. It was in the country, more or less, when it was built, and has kept that air, even to the extent of acquiring a thoroughly unsuitable flat-roofed extension at the front for before- and after-service get-togethers, just as many a country church did four or five decades ago when such accretions were the fashion. St Agnes’s is included on this website as a church at risk because those getting together are now fewer in number.

Though unsurprising, this is a pity in a district that has grown a great deal since this diminutive church was built for a much smaller population. Its first congregation lived in rambling, isolated houses among the ti-tree and scrub. Black Rock is now thoroughly built up with expensive-looking houses, though, either in reality or imagination you can still hear the waves swishing on the nearby beach and smell the salt in the air. 

The first St Agnes’s, Black Rock was built in 1899 and burnt down fourteen years later.
Note the sandy soil along the fence: the beach is not far away.
Picture: Sandringham and DIstrict Historical Society http://www.manins.net.au/black-rock/stagnes_notes.html

The present church is the second on the site. The first was a weatherboard structure built in 1899 and burnt down on Shrove Tuesday, 4 February 2013. That day was hot and windy. The fire started in the scrub, swept the street and engulfed the church. Some items of furniture were saved, notably the eagle lectern carved by the German immigrant sculptor Robert Prenzel (1866-1941) who lived nearby. It is still in use in the present church.

After the fire, services were held for a time, at the invitation of the proprietress, at the “Linga Longa Tea Rooms” on Beach Road – oh, those delightfully playful names of yesteryear; today it would be more earnestly named “Caffé e Focaccia”, the latter word probably incorrectly spelt and always incorrectly pronounced. Though the timber church was beyond repair, they didn’t muck about in those days, as my father would have said, and before the year was out the foundation stone of the new church was laid. The building was dedicated in April 2014.

The architect was John Gawler (1885-1978). At the time he was the representative in Australia of Walter Burley Griffin who in 1912 had won the competition to design Canberra. Gawler was later a partner in the firm of Gawler & Drummond and dean of the faculty of architecture at the University of Melbourne.

Gawler’s design for St Agnes’s was for a steeply gabled plain brick three-bay nave with pointed windows, a small not-quite apsidal chancel – it has a square east wall with shorter polygonal sides – and lateral vestries with organ chamber. Above the north vestry is a bellcote in the form of a roofed frame. The west end of the church was unfinished until the extension was added in 1975.

Interior of St Agnes’s, Black Rock, with the chancel screen carved by Miss Elsie Traill.
Picture: Sandringham and DIstrict Historical Society http://www.manins.net.au/black-rock/stagnes_notes.html

The interior is made elaborate by much timber carving, principally the work of a local lady, Miss Elsie Traill, who laid the foundation stone of St Agnes’s and whose father, an early resident of Black Rock, was an animating spirit behind the establishment of the parish. His wife, “greatly concerned over the lack of religious training for children” in the district, had started a Sunday School in a private house in 1888 and in 1894 Mr Traill gave the land for the church.

Miss Trail’s principal oeuvre is an open chancel screen running the width of the church. Anglican churches of the era, still under the influence of the distant Ecclesiologists in England, who thought no church “correct” without a screen to divide the congregation in the nave from the choir and sanctuary at, as they would have seen it, the more sacred end, were often equipped with screens, some of which, like that in St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, have since been moved to another part of the building. The screen in St Agnes’s would be an ornament to a larger church, and although it is somewhat intrusive in a more restricted space it is good to see it still there when so many church interiors have been vandalised in the name of “reordering”.  

The Black Rock countryside has long since been built over but St Agnes’s retains the look of a country church. The pretty bellcote can be seen beyond the apse.
Picture: Sandringham and DIstrict Historical Society http://www.manins.net.au/black-rock/stagnes_notes.html

ST GEORGE’S, GEELONG

(PRESBYTERIAN)
CORNER OF LA TROBE TERRACE AND RYRIE STREET, GEELONG

Closed and to all appearances forgotten. 

St George’s Presbyterian church, Geelong, with its commanding spire.
(Picture: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Geelong_St_Georges_Presbyterian_Church.JPG)

This is one of those mysterious cases where a church shuts its doors after a service and shut they stay without anything further happening. Time goes by and no attempt seems to be made to reopen the building or to make any change to it. No estate agent’s board appears outside spruiking its potential, with the wit property salesmen reserve for churches on the market, as a heavenly home or a divine development site. It remains unmeddled with and undemolished. Which of course is a good thing, as long as it lasts, particularly for a building of such architectural merit as St George’s, Geelong.

This church closed for services in January 2015 for a “one-year operational review”. At the end of May 2021 it is still closed, its Presbyterian owners apparently having come to no decision about its future. During those six years the church and its surroundings have received basic maintenance and there are no signs of vandalism, which is itself these days unusual.

St George’s is an imposing church, built for a wealthy and influential congregation, which included the philanthropist Francis Ormond of Ormond Hall and Ormond College fame and sundry Western District squatters of Scottish provenance. They engaged the architect Nathaniel Billing (1821-1910) to prepare the design. Billing had emigrated from England direct to the Western District town of Port Fairy, where he had designed St John’s Anglican church and supervised the construction of the Roman Catholic church of St Patrick. In Melbourne his most notable work is the vast All Saints’ Anglican church in East St Kilda.

Billing described himself (there appears to be no corroboration) as a pupil of the renowned Gothic Revivalist Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878), architect of over 800 buildings, of which perhaps the best known is the soaring red-brick hotel in front of St Pancras Station, London. If so, the influence shows. Billing’s work is certainly more disciplined and “correct” in his style than other ecclesiastical architects working in Victoria at the time, with the exception of William Wardell, architect of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne.

The foundation stone of St George’s was laid on 12 June 1861. The building materials are bluestone and Hawkesbury River freestone for the dressings. The first completed section was the large nave with vestry and square-ended chancel. The church faces west and a porch the width of the nave was built, with a principal doorway and gabled portal opening onto La Trobe Terrace. Transepts and vestibule were added in 1908 and the tower and spire on the north-west corner to mark the church’s 75th anniversary in 1936.

Street view, late 1930s style. Central Geelong soon after the addition of the tower and spire to St George’s (left foreground). The new work stands out for the lighter colour of the stonework. Along Ryrie Street, the former Geelong Post Office and the T & G Insurance Building can be seen.
(Picture: CD Pratt, http://search.slv.vic.gov.au/permalink/f/cjahgv/SLV_VOYAGER1653354)

The design is English Gothic of the early Decorated period. The nave is six bays long, the bays marked by buttresses, and under one roof. The window in the main west façade is traceried, with four principal lights and three cinquefoils. The tower, in three stages and buttressed at the corners, is distinctive for its unusually tall bell chamber. A broach spire rises above it, a landmark in the west of Geelong and to some extent a companion to the higher spire of St Mary of the Angels further east. The stone-built Gothic manse behind St George’s, now tenanted, was also designed by Nathaniel Billing.  

The church contains some fine stained glass, including windows by Ballantyne & Company of Edinburgh and a war memorial window by William Montgomery (1850-1927), described by his biographer as “Melbourne’s leading stained-glass artist” of the period.

It would be nice to think that this church could reopen. There is a precedent for that in the former Presbyterian, then Uniting, now Presbyterian again church in St Kilda, which, set on a hill with a tall spire, is the most prominent nineteenth-century building in Melbourne’s inner southern suburbs. It was briefly made redundant by the Uniting Church but was reopened and then thoroughly restored inside and out about ten years ago by a Presbyterian congregation that took responsibility for it. But perhaps St George’s has been shut for too long. Its interior fittings, according to someone who managed to see inside, are thickly covered with thick dust. One fears the worst.

St George’s in 1930, before the addition of the tower and spire.
(Picture: https://gnet.geelongcollege.vic.edu.au/wiki/SAINT-GEORGE-S-PRESBYTERIAN-CHURCH.ashx)

EAST IVANHOE UNITING CHURCH

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.

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.

ST ANDREW’S, ROKEWOOD

(UNITING)
FERRARS STREET, ROKEWOOD

I spoke too soon.

The Uniting, formerly Presbyterian, church at Rokewood is still open for Sunday services. It 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, was added in 1905.

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.

PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY

ST ANDREW’S, GARDINER

(FORMERLY PRESBYTERIAN, NOW UNITING)
CORNER BURKE AND MALVERN ROADS, GARDINER

An inner-city church rebuilt on a new site.

St Andrew’s Gaelic church and, to its right, the manse in Rathdowne Street, Carlton, in a photograph of the early 1880s. A cupola of the Exhibition Building is in the foreground. The church, cruciform with a pinnacled tower, was dismantled in 1938. The manse with its elegant balconies survives as do the terraces to the right. In the middle left distance behind the flagpole is the former Catholic Apostolic (now Rumanian Orthodox) church in Queensberry Street before its 1887 remodelling. The tower with mansard roof and flag beyond is the old Carlton Brewery. The tower of the former North Melbourne Town Hall can be recognised in the distance to the right above the transept of St Andrew’s, with the spire of the Union Memorial Church in Curzon Street faintly discernible left of the Town Hall.  
State Library of Victoria http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/49159 (10032021)

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.

St Andrew’s, Gardiner on its commanding corner site. The resemblance to the original St Andrew’s Gaelic church is slight. The present building is largely the work of architects Scarborough, Robertson and Love in 1939.

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.

North side of the nave of St Andrew’s, Gardiner.
The lower tower windows light the porch inside.
StAndrew’s is surrounded by well-tended grounds. .

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 chapel with its six square-headed windows, the organ chamber and the projecting vestries.
The foundation stone with dates of the earlier and later churches.

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.

West wall of the vestry. Note how the rough-cut bluestone catches the sunlight.
The main door at the foot of the tower.
Side view of the tower with its “solid buttressed prominence”.

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.

*Articles in Quadrant Magazine
The Decline of the Suburban Church
The Continued Decline of the Suburban Church

Panoramic view of St Andrew’s, Gardiner. It could be English village church on the edge of its green if only the road surface were grass.

COLOUR PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY

ST PATRICK’S, ROKEWOOD

(ROMAN CATHOLIC)
COLAC-BALLARAT ROAD, ROKEWOOD

One more disposal in what looks like a clearance sale.

St Patrick’s, Rokewood, now sold to a new owner. The church was built in 1927.

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 former Catholic church at Springdallah has pretty Gothic windows in the Early English style. It exemplifies the rule that, once sold for conversion into a house, a church is usually disfigured by solar panels, iron stovepipes and other unsuitable domestic additions.

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 foundation stone of St Patrick’s, laid in 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.

Porch and main façade of St Patrick’s, Rokewood. Unusually for a Gothic Revival church, it has eaves instead of parapets.

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.

The half-timbered panel under the gable repeats the tripartite theme of the lancet windows.

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.

Side view of porch and main front of St Patrick’s, Rokewood. Note the clustered corner buttresses and well-kept slate roofs.
Notice on the porch door. What Covid cancelled temporarily the sale of the church has made permanent.

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.)

The nave of St Patrick’s, Rokewood is of five bays, making. It quite a large church for so small a township.

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 end of the story. The church seems to have been sold with its pews and other furnishings, such as an unusual altar and pulpit of “crazy” stonework, still in situ.

PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY

ST PHILIP THE EVANGELIST, RUPANYUP

(ANGLICAN)
CROMIE STREET, RUPANYUP

Architect Louis Williams at his best.

St Philip’s, Rupanyup, built in 1934-35.

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.

St Philip’s in profile. The church is a notable work by Louis Williams in his unique version of Arts and Crafts Gothic.

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.

St Philip’s from the north-east, with its very fine rose window. Wheelie bins, like power lines, are a fact of modern life in architectural photography.

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 apsidal baptistery. The decorative string course beneath the windows relieves the blankness of the walls.
The foundation stone in the baptistery wall was
laid on 14 February 1934.

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 main door at the base of the tower. Note the fine brickwork of the recessed arch.

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.

Tower, vestry roof, chancel and rose window high in the chancel wall.
The tower from below with the baptistery wall on the left.

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.

Nave windows with Williams’s geometric pattern of leading.
Windows in the chancel have metal grilles in the lower openings.

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?

St Philip’s, Rupanyup: “not the sort of building would would expect into find” in a remote township.

PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY

ALBERT PARK METHODIST CHURCH, ALBERT PARK

(FORMERLY METHODIST)
CARDIGAN PLACE, ALBERT PARK

The post-Christian era in plain view.

Main façade of the former Albert Park Methodist church. No stained glass remains in the clear-glazed windows.

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. 

Side view of the former Albert Park Methodist church showing the main façade and north transept. The “quarter aisle” with three windows makes the nave five-sided in plan with a straight sixth side formed by west wall and organ and choir gallery. An unencumbered view of the church is hard to get with so many mature street trees.

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.

Imposing in its size though unfinished to the original design, St Silas’s, Albert Park, begun in 1925, is at the opposite end of Bridport Street from the former Methodist church.

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.

One of the twin turrets on the main front of the church.

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.

The south-east turret. Note the unusual corbel on a column, itself supported by a corbel, that carries the projecting brickwork of the turret.

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.

Patterned brickwork in buttress and wall.

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 foundation stone, laid on 10 December 1889.

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.

The church seen from the schoolground. The timber “chancel” is at the left. It housed the organ and a choir gallery.  

PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY

ST ANDREW’S, WILLIAMSTOWN

(PRESBYTERIAN)
CECIL STREET, WILLIAMSTOWN

A fine tower on an historic church.

St Andrew’s, Cecil Street, Williamstown, with its handsome tower.

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.

St Andrew’s, Williamstown, in an earlier photograph.
Picture: Sarah Chinnery 1887-1970 https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-144450120 (15112020)

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.

Foundation stone of the 1870-1871 rebuilding of the church.
The nave of St Andrew’s, Williamstown, looking back towards the tower.

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.

Detail of a buttress on the nave wall. The roughly worked bluestone is in pleasing contrast to the smooth cement dressings.
Doors at the base of the tower. That on the left leads into the church. The doorway on the right leads to the stairway in the turret.
This mullioned and traceried Gothic window at the front of the tower’s lowest stage is in English Decorated style.

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.  

The tower of St Andrew’s, Williamstown, from the north. Note the three stages and the varied and highly original window treatment.

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.

Detail of the arcaded tower windows in the middle stage at the front. The arches and transoms have moulded decoration and hood moulds with corbels. Beneath is a row of blind quatrefoils.

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.

View up the tower from the church entrance
Tower and turret of St Andrew’s Williamstown, from the west.

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.

St Andrew’s, Williamstown, in its pleasant well-kept grounds.

ALL PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANTHONY BAILEY (unless otherwise noted)

ST AGNES’S, GLEN HUNTLY

(ANGLICAN)
BOORAN ROAD, GLEN HUNTLY

An echo of Ravenna in a 1920s suburb.

Tower and west front of St Agnes’s, Glen Huntly, a fine design in Neo-Romanesque. (The obtrusiveness of power lines in the Australian streetscape is often underestimated.
In countries with a higher sense of public aesthetics they are underground. The parked cars are an obstacle to architectural photography everywhere.)

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.

The tower is built in three levels with a lower stage with three openings, blind middle stage with cross in relief and louvred bell chamber below a low pyramidal roof.

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.

Another view of the tower with the church’s name in elegant incised lettering on an inset cement panel.

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.

The southwest porch, one of two on either side of the baptistery, which can be glimpsed at left. The scalopped cornice continues across the front of the church.

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.

The apsidal baptistery, reminiscent of Ravenna, projects from the base of the tower.

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.    

The north wall of the nave, beyond the kindergarten that occupies the parish hall. Note the form of the brickwork surrounding the cement infill. This would have been, with the infill and window removed, one of the arches of an arcaded side aisle.  Lunettes above the corbelled string course would have become the clerestory.
The foundation stone with its beautifully incised inscription.
Detail of a wrought-iron door hinge.

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?

A side door to the nave with unfinished brickwork on the pier at the left and eave of the choir vestry to the right. The architects of St Agnes’s made provision for the church to be extended laterally with aisles in the expectation, probably justified in 1924 as the suburb grew, that the congregation would also increase.
Detail of arch, cement infill, and window in the nave wall. The brick notches to the right show where the east wall of the projected side aisle would have been joined to the nave. A low sloping roof would have abutted the wall at the level of the string course with the lunette exposed as part of the clerestory. 

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.

The apse of St Agnes’s with vestry, and above the chancel roof, the east wall and eaves of nave and the tower.  

PHOTOGRAPHY FOR THIS POST BY ANTHONY BAILEY