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The Double Arched Portal Portico of the Former Saint George's Presbyterian Church - Chapel Street, St Kilda East

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posted by alias raaen99 on Wednesday 13th of February 2019 08:49:23 AM

The former Saint George's Presbyterian Church, which stands on busy Chapel Street in St Kilda East, is a well known and loved local landmark, not least of all because of its strikingly tall (33.5 metre or 110 foot) banded bell tower which can be spotted from far away. In the Nineteenth Century when it was built, it would have been even more striking for its great height and domineering presence. Designed by architect Albert Purchas, the former Saint George's Presbyterian Church is often referred to as his ecclesiastical tour-de-force, and it is most certainly one of his most dramatic and memorable churches. The former Saint George's Presbyterian Church was constructed on a plot of land reserved in Chapel Street for the Presbyterian Church of Victoria in 1866. Initially services were held in a small hall whilst fundraising efforts advanced the erection of a church. The architect Albert Purchas was commissioned to design the church and the foundation stone for the western portion of the nave was finally laid in April 1877 by Sir James McCulloch. The first service was held in the church on the 1st of October 1877. The first clergyman of the former Saint George's Presbyterian Church was the Reverend John Laurence Rentoul (father to world renown and much loved Australian children's book illustrator Ida Rentoul Outhwaite). However, the swelling Presbyterian congregation of St Kilda and its surrounding districts quickly outgrew the initial Saint George's Presbyterian Church building, so Albert Purchas was obliged to re-design and enlarge the church to allow a doubling in capacity. Robert S. Ekins was the contractor and his tender was £3000.00. It is this imposing church building, reopened in 1880, that we see today. The "Australasian Sketcher with Pen and Pencil" noted that the total length of the building was 118 feet and 6 inches (36 metres), by 40 foot (12 metres) wide and that the striking octagonal tower to the north-west was 110ft 6 in high. It perhaps reflected better the wealth and aspirations of the congregation. The former Saint George's Presbyterian Church is constructed on bluestone foundations and is built in an ornate polychromatic Gothic Revival style in the tradition of English designers like William Butterfield and John L. Pearson. Built of red brick building, it is decorated in contrasting cream bricks and Waurn Ponds freestone dressings. It features a slate roof with prominent roof vents, iron ridge cresting and fleche at the intersection of the nave and transepts. The front facade of the church is dominated by the slender, banded octagonal tower topped by a narrow spire. The entrance features a double arched portal portico. The facade also features a dominant triangular epitrochoidal (curved triangular form) rose window. The church, like its bluestone neighbour All Saints Church of England, is built to a T-shaped plan, with an aisleless nave, broad transepts and internal walls of cream brick, relieved with coloured brickwork. The former Saint George's Presbyterian Church was one of the first major church design in Melbourne in which polychrome brickwork was lavishly employed both externally and internally. The inside of the former Saint George's Presbyterian Church is equally as grand as the exterior, with ornamental Gothic Revival polychromatic brickwork, a lofty vaulted ceiling, deal and kauri pine joinery and pulpit and reredos of Keene's cement. The building originally contained a complete set of Victorian stained glass windows by well known and successful Melbourne manufacturers Ferguson and Urie, all of which remain intact today except for one of the non-figurative windows which was replaced by a memorial window to Samuel Lyons McKenzie, the congregation’s beloved minister, who served from 1930 to 1948, in 1949. The earliest of the Ferguson and Urie windows are non-figurative windows which feature the distinctive diaper pattern and floral motifs of Fergus and Urie's work, and are often argued to be amongst the finest of their non-figurative designs. The large triple window in the chancel was presented by Lady McCulloch in memory of the ‘loved and dead’. Another, in memory of John Kane Smyth, the Vice-Consul for the United States of America in Melbourne, has the American Stars and Stripes on the top ventilator above it. An organ by Thomas C. Lewis of London, one of the leading 19th century English organ builders, was installed in the south transept in 1882. It was designed to blend with its architectural setting, with pipework styled to avoid the obstruction of windows. The action of this organ was altered in 1935, but the pipework, and the original sound, have been retained. Over the years many spiritual and social activities were instituted at Saint George’s, Presbyterian Church some of short duration such as the Ladies’ Reading Club which operated between 1888 and 1893. There were segregated Bible classes for young men and women, the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union, formed in 1892, a cricket club and a floral guild. Guilds teaching physical culture for girls, boys and young men began in 1904. They were entirely financed by John Maclellan and the idea extended to other denominations throughout Victoria. John Maclellan died in 1936 and the guilds ceased at Saint George’s Presbyterian church through lack of funds although in 1977 the members of the girls’ guild were still holding bi-annual reunions and raising money for charity. Sadly, the Presbyterian congregations may have been large in the Nineteenth Century, but by St George's Presbyterian Church's 110th centenary, its doors had already closed during the week due to dwindling numbers and an ageing congregation as a result of the general decline in church attendances after the Second World War exacerbated by the changing nature of St Kilda and the decrease in numbers of residents living in the vicinity of the church. So it stood, forlorn and empty and seemingly nothing more than a relic of a glorious but bygone religious past. However in 1990, Saint Michael's Grammar School across the road leased the Victorian Heritage listed building during weekdays, and it was eventually sold to them in 2015. It now forms part of the school's performing-arts complex, and it has a wonderful new lease of life. St George's Presbyterian Church is sometimes hired out for performances, and I had the pleasure of receiving an invitation to hear Handel's Messiah performed there in 2009. The ecclesiastical acoustics made the performance all the more magnificent. I remember as I sat on one of the original (hard) kauri pine pews, I looked around me and admired the stained glass and ornamental brickwork. I tried without success over several subsequent years to gain access to the church's interior, settling for photographs of the exterior instead, but it wasn't until 2018 that I was fortunate enough to gain entry to photograph the church's interior. The former St George's Presbyterian Church was opened up to the public for one Sunday morning only as part of Open House Melbourne in July 2018. It was a fantastic morning, and I am very grateful to the staff who manned the church for the day and watched bemused as I photographed the stained glass extensively and in such detail. Albert Purchas, born in 1825 in Chepstow, Monmouthshire, Wales, was a prominent Nineteenth Century architect who achieved great success for himself in Melbourne. Born to parents Robert Whittlesey Purchas and Marianne Guyon, he migrated to Australia in 1851 to establish himself in the then quickly expanding city of Melbourne, where he set up a small architect's firm in Little Collins Street. He also offered surveying services. His first major building was constructing the mansion "Berkeley Hall" in St Kilda on Princes Street in 1854. The house still exists today. Two years after migrating, Albert designed the layout of the Melbourne General Cemetery in Carlton. It was the first "garden cemetery" in Victoria, and his curvilinear design is still in existence, unaltered, today. In 1854, Albert married Eliza Anne Sawyer (1825 - 1869) in St Kilda. The couple had ten children over their marriage, including a son, Robert, who followed in his father's footsteps as an architect. Albert's brother-in-law, Charles Sawyer joined him in the partnership of Purchas and Sawyer, which existed from 1856 until 1862 in Queens Street. The firm produced more than 140 houses, churches, offices and cemetery buildings including: the nave and transepts of Christ Church St Kilda between 1854 and 1857, "Glenara Homestead"in Bulla in 1857, the Melbourne Savings Bank on the corner of Flinders Lane and Market Street (now demolished) between 1857 and 1858, the Geelong branch of the Bank of Australasia in Malop Street between 1859 and 1860, and Beck's Imperial Hotel in Castlemaine in 1861. When the firm broke up, Albert returned to Little Collins Street, and the best known building he designed during this period was Saint. George's Presbyterian Church in St Kilda East between 1877 and 1880. The church's tall polychomatic brick bell tower is still a local landmark, even in the times of high rise architecture and development, and Saint, George's itself is said to be one of his most striking church designs. Socially, Albert was vice president of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects for many years, before becoming president in 1887. He was also an inventor and philanthropist. Albert died in 1909 at his home in Kew, a wealthy widower and much loved father.



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  • Published 07.04.22
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