The Christian Science church in Camberwell is one of Melbourne’s best examples of 1930s Modernism. But its once flourishing denomination is declining.

The Christian Science church in Camberwell: a fine example of 1930s Modernism.

In its country of origin, the United States, once a seemingly inexhaustible fount of new variations on the Christian theme, Christian Science was founded in 1879 as Mrs Mary Baker Eddy of Boston’s interpretation of the New Testament. Her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures  had sold over nine million copies by 2001 and Christian Science was widely followed as a “rational” faith and attracted many high-profile adherents.

In 1906 Christian Science built a vast domed mother church – the First Church of Christ, Scientist – in Boston, and throughout the twentieth century as membership grew around the world, imposing churches were built in many cities. Melbourne was no exception, with at least five, the central (or First) church, a Classical edifice in St Kilda Road somewhat reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome, opened in 1922 to the design of architect Harold Dumsday of the firm Bates, Peebles and Smart.

One of the three porticoes in the facade that emphasise the building’s verticality.
Note the superb detail of the wrought-iron inserts.

Christian Science has declined steeply in membership from its heyday from the 1930s to the 1950s and has already disposed of one of its grander Melbourne churches (its Third), a soaring dark brick exercise in modernised Italian Romanesque with campanile, in Elsternwick designed by architects Cockerell and Louis R. Williams (in a rare non-Anglican commission). Its long-term future seems doubtful; it is currently used by Buddhists.

It is the denomination’s Second Church in Melbourne, in Cookson Street, Camberwell, that could now be at risk from a further decline in Christian Science membership. This is a building of great originality in what might be termed the Moderne-Classical style, opened in 1937 to a design by the Bates, Smart and McCutcheon partnership, as the architects of the St Kilda Road church were by then called, a firm still functioning today. Their design won a Royal Institute of Victorian Architects award in 1938 and was influential in the development of European- and American-influenced Modernist architecture in Australia and a pioneer of Modernism in the field of church-building.

Second Church of Christ, Scientist, Melbournel: detail of the brickwork and banding.

The church is built in the cream brick favoured at the time, distinctly pointed. It consists of four overlapping cuboids of banded brick that form a tall entrance front and a taller central worship space rising behind it, all with patterned brick cornices. Single-storey Sunday School, reading room and offices flank the main block. The monumental façade is pierced by three portals that emphasise the building’s verticality; inset above each is an elongated octagonal lozenge filled with a non-figurative geometric design. The beautiful wrought-iron doors are of intricate Moderne design. Inside, the auditorium has a louvred ceiling and a vertically chain-patterned screen behind the rostrum where a reredos would stand in a conventional church. This is a building of exemplary quality of conception and detail.

An earlier photograph of the Christian Science church in Camberwell. The single-storey block on the left is one of two that flank the main building.



A fine nineteenth-century church on a hill in inner Melbourne. But how secure is its future?

St Martin’s, Hawsksburn, from the north-west. Note the extensive use of banding and polychromatic brickwork.

St Martin’s is a lofty barnlike church with some nice decorative details. The walls are in polychrome brick, partly diaper-patterned. The wide apse has a three-light traceried window at the east, set into its own gable raised above the wall level like a dormer. Three little lanterns on the roof ridge for ventilation give a jaunty touch. 

St Martin’s was built between 1883 and 1887 to designs by Edmund G. Ovey (c. 1847-1916) who designed a number of buildings in the surrounding district, including his own house in Cromwell Road and the vicarage at St Martin’s. The five-bay nave is wide and without side aisles but with side porches, the chancel has lean-to vestries, there is a short right transept. The low square tower with three bell openings on each side and crenellated parapet was added in 1922. The architects were the partnership of A. &. K. Henderson, Rodney Alsop and Marcus Martin, all big names in their profession.

St Martin’s. Hawksburn: detail of brickwork and stone foundation of the north wall.

The land beneath the church falls away steeply to the west; seen from down the street looking uphill St Martin’s looks like a Victorian church in London.  The west front has three lancet windows. There is a crypt under the west end of the nave, used for various events. The western bay of the nave has been divided off internally to accommodate two levels of meeting rooms. You can see desks and chairs and other paraphernalia through the glazed partitions.

St Martin’s contains some fine stained glass, a well restored and elaborately stencilled Fincham organ of 1887 and all of its original timber fittings, including an oak altar carved by the renowned Robert Prenzel (1866-1941). The open screen across the narthex is a later insertion. The spacious chancel looks all the wider without the choir stalls that were once on either side (few Anglican chancels in Melbourne have choir stalls any more, partly through a dearth of choristers, partly because, as at St Martin’s, the space has been conscripted to accommodate forward-standing altars in the post-Vatican II RC tradition). St Martin’s is in the Anglo-Catholic tradition of Anglicanism with various High Church indicators inside such as that sine qua non, six candles on the altar, though the raked floor of the nave gives it an Evangelical look, like St Jude’s, Carlton, or the former nave at St Matthew’s, Prahran.

St Martin’s is open all day, now a rarity among Melbourne Anglican and RC churches that were once invariably open. Daily accessibility is one of several signs that determined efforts are being made to attract more people into St Martin’s and to anchor it in the local community.  

St Martin’s. Hawksburn. The tower was added in 1923. The telecommunications mast is a discordant contemporary addition, one with which many Melbourne church towers are blighted.

Hawksburn has always been mixed in character: the streets downhill from St Martin’s towards Chapel Street were once working-class, those higher up comfortably upper middle-class with many fine houses. Their original owners were probably churchgoers in the main but current residents don’t seem to have the time or inclination for that and the congregation of St Martin’s is small. This puts the church at risk as not being financially “viable”. Location is not in its favour either. St Martin’s sits roughly half-way between the two high-profile Anglican parishes of St John’s, Toorak, and Christ Church, South Yarra. If it were to be closed it would be a definite architectural loss but its parishioners would still not have far to travel to church.

An earlier photograph of St Martin’s Hawksburn showing the apse.