ARCHITECTURE FOR SALE


Two fine and unusual buildings are for sale in Victoria. One ought not to be. For the other a sale will probably lead to long overdue repairs and restoration.

The building in need of restoration is a large nineteenth-century country house called Mintaro, on the edge of the hamlet of Monegeetta, 56 kilometres north of Melbourne. It is about as close to derelict as a building can be and still be partly habitable. Mintaro was built in 1882 in the Italianate style popular in Victoria's boom years and has arcaded logge and a high tower characteristic of that style. There is a fanciful theory that it was to some extent modelled on Government House in Melbourne, completed six years earlier, but although the tower bears a vague resemblance to that of the vice-regal palace, the rest of Mintaro is no more like Government House than a host of plutocratic mansions of the era.

The architect of Mintaro was James Gall, who designed three similar houses, in East Melbourne, at Canterbury and Murchison; the client a Captain Robert Gardiner, a Scot who had made fortune whaling at Portland, trading in gold and grazing sheep and cattle. He clearly intended Mintaro and its estate as a showpiece of his wealth. The house has a grand staircase hall along with ten principal rooms (plus smaller rooms for servants and a cellar). Some of the rooms are sumptuously decorated. There are elegant Corinthian columns in scagliola, that is, plasterwork painted to imitate marble. There are floors of beautiful and intricately patterned Minton tiles, grand Italian marble fireplaces and intricate cornice and ceiling mouldings. Some rooms have fine wall stencilling and wall paintings. A painted sequence in the drawing room illustrates the pursuits by which Gardiner made his fortune and there is some delicate painting of flowers and birds and scenes from his Scottish homeland. All this decor is of a more elaborate kind than is generally found in country mansions in Victoria. Yet Mintaro is little known and few these days can claim to have seen inside it.

Captain Gardiner enjoyed his house for only seven years before he died. There were several subsequent owners and then a period of institutional use by the Methodist Church as a girls' home. In 1934 the property was bought by Mr Percy Rea for fattening sheep. He died in 1940 and the next year the army gave notice to his widow and son to leave and took over the house as a barracks. Mrs Rea and her son Derek were allowed to return to their home in 1946.

In the decades that followed Mintaro became steadily more dilapidated. When Mrs Rea died in her nineties Derek inherited and lived their alone. He lived in one room and slept in another while the mansion went to pieces over his head. But he was not a hermit. One of the few death notices after he died in his sleep in October 2010, himself well into his eighties, recalled pleasant times with "music, tea and biscuits" in his kitchen. He was a good pianist and played the concert grand that was kept in the drawing room. He was a supporter of the local fire brigade and an old-car enthusiast. In fact, the grounds of Mintaro, which in the house's earlier days were laid out as formal gardens, were like a vast car yard in Mr Rea's later years, though most of the vehicles, sold en masse in an auction soon after his death, looked fit only for the wrecker. At his funeral in the nearby town of Romsey, a cortege of vintage cars followed the hearse from the church to the graveyard.

The original Mintaro "run" was 12,800 acres. The land for sale now extends to 24 acres. Trees screen the house from the main road, though not thickly enough to screen out the view - from the house - of a dreary industrial-looking Department of Defence site right next door, compulsorily acquired from the Reas in 1941 for the army and absolutely inappropriate to a country setting. Perhaps, given the Federal Government's financial attitude to the armed forces, it will not be there forever.

Mr Rea's executors are selling Mintaro at auction on 15 November. The reserve price is $3 million, but it will cost at least as much again to put it into good order. One must hope that whoever buys it respects its integrity and does not fill it with jacuzzi and other vulgar contemporary contrivances alien both to the spirit and the decor of a nineteenth-century country house.

The building that ought not to be for sale, if commonsense and responsibility prevailed and fitness of use were taken into account, is one of Melbourne's - and perhaps even Australia's - finest Anglican churches. It is St Alban's (or to the agents 583 Orrong Road) in the prosperous Melbourne suburb of Armadale. St Alban's is for sale after a long period out of ecclesiastical use. The site will no doubt bring a lot of money, even though planning and heritage laws and the nature of the building itself will impose substantial restrictions on what it can be used for.

St Alban's is what is known as a town church, in that it rises straight from the urban street instead of sitting in a churchyard. It is most imaginatively designed in a form of Gothic Revival known as Arts and Crafts Gothic that was in vogue for churches and secular buildings around the beginning of the twentieth century. It is tall and steep-roofed with five splendid lancet windows at its east (or altar) end, set back in the wall and enclosed within a huge arch and flanked by two octagonal turrets. This makes a striking facade to the street.

St Alban's was completed in 1898. The architects were Inskip & Butler, a firm with a strong aesthetic sense who in their design for St Alban's showed how construction in brick need not be an exercise in ordinariness but, with intelligent use of a variety of types of brick, in patterns such as the diaper design on the east facade, could result in a building of great visual interest and satisfaction. The way the different planes of walls, roofs and exterior buttresses intersect and combine adds to the interest. St Alban's is like a well-made clock. Every smallest detail is as it should be, everything fits together and the whole is functional and beautiful.

The architects' imaginative use of brick is especially apparent inside St Alban's, where walls, pilasters and arches, all in brick - there is no plaster rendering - are elaborately but not fussily patterned. There is a wonderful effect of colours and textures. The soaring nave is separated from its low passage aisles by shallow arches. The traditional Gothic ratio of lofty aisle arches to shallower clerestory above has been turned upside down and the clerestory, much taller than the arcade beneath it, is grand and dramatic and reinforces the sense of the nave's height. With its windows set in groups of three and framed by blind arches inside and out the clerestory is one of the church's best features.

The only thing that lets St Alban's down is the tower, built not to the original design (there used to be a picture of what the completed church should have looked like hanging in the vestry) but to a reduced 1960s version with tiny corner pinnacles which is too small for the church and makes no impact whatever. It has an awful statue of St Alban above the door in a dated "contemporary" style. 

But if the parish could afford even a cut-down tower in the 1960s that must have been about the last time the church was viable. Even then it didn't have much of a congregation. The Melbourne Diocesan Year Book of 1957-58 lists the "estimated number of communicants" in the parish at 450 (which, given the Anglican twelve-per-cent attendance rule, means there must have been about 3750 nominal Anglicans in Armadale). In the unlikely event that the 450 ever turned up to one service they would have fitted nicely into St Alban's, which, according to the same book, has seating for 475. By 1982, one generation later, there were only 25 communicants in the parish, a mere fifteen of whom turned up on Christmas Day, a time when even in these godless days churches are usually respectably attended. Armadale is a wealthy district, its population not so much upwardly mobile as already ascended. Why do so few of them go to church? Perhaps they are too secure in their privileged comfort to feel that they need to (Armadale's other Anglican church, Holy Advent, has been recently closed too. Happily it is nothing like as distinguished a building as St Alban's). Perhaps the few Armadale residents who feel a religious impulse of the Anglican variety go snootily up the hill to the more fashionable St John's in Toorak. They certainly didn't go to St Alban's, which remained the right church in the wrong place.

They stayed away from St Alban's in such numbers that the Anglican authorities gave up on the church. They amalgamated it with a neighbouring parish. For a time it was let to a Chinese congregation. Now it is for sale, with of course the usual estate agents' lame attempts at wit that attend the sale of churches: "Your prayers have been answered" proclaims the on-line ad, presumably addressing a hypothetical purchaser.

Could the Anglican Church not have found some way to keep St Alban's? Church authorities have often justified the sale of redundant churches on the grounds that the Church has more pressing tasks than to be a custodian of historic buildings. But the Church built them and the Church should look after rather than abandon them. Besides, a prominent church is more than a building. It has a missionary function: its existence makes a statement that the church is there, in the community, even for non-attenders.

One means, whether tried or not I do not know, of saving St Alban's from closure would have been to invite a successful Evangelical parish to open a "branch" there and revivify the parish. This has worked successfully with a number of big redundant churches in England. Evangelicals of the revivalistic sort are not everyone's cup of tea, but they maintain a Christian presence in the parish and keep the church building alive (often at some cost to the internal appointments, but you can't have everything).

But if, after serious efforts to find one, no purpose can be found for a redundant church of notable architectural merit, the Church authorities should not allow themselves to be tempted by the commercial value of its site. The building should be let - never sold. Who knows that as times change it will not one day be needed again?

It is not good PR when prominently sited, big churches cease to be used for worship. Few notice when an obscure church down a side street is closed but when a monumental edifice such as St Alban's shuts up shop everybody does, and people take it as one more sign that the Church as a whole is on the way out. Which it might well be, though it seems masochistic to shout the fact from the housetops. 

A couple of years ago, after St Alban's ceased to be used for services, I was passing by one cold night and noticed it lit up. I looked inside and what a bizarre scene I saw. Some kind of dance rehearsal was in progress and a single couple were whirling around in the middle of a vast empty floor. All the pews had gone. Portable stage lighting shone a glare of bluish white on the dancers, whose gyrations sent spectral shadows flitting over the polychromatic low brick arches. The higher walls of the nave and the roof above were lost in inky darkness, misty and mysterious. Near the door a piece of stone was set into the wall, a gift to St Alban's from St Alban's Abbey in England. Like the stained glass, no one had bothered to remove it when the church was deconsecrated so I suppose it goes with the building, a quaint talking point for new secular owners.

There are some excellent photographs of Mintaro and of St Alban's, Armadale, inside and out, at the estate agent's websites. For Mintaro: www.keatings.com.au/view-property/. For St Alban's: www.realestateview.com.au/...armadale/.

30 October 2012

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