A neo-Gothic church with a history as intriguing as its architecture and appearance has won the Enduring Concrete Award 2010.
Wellington ’s St Mary of the Angels, believed to be the world’s first neo-Gothic church built using reinforced concrete, was presented with the award at the NZ Concrete Society’s annual conference in
Wellington. Bestowed biennially by the NZCS, the award recognises excellence in the use of concrete in building and civil engineering structures more than 25 years old.
The Catholic church, situated in Boulcott Street, was completed in 1922 and has a NZ Historic Places Trust Category I classification.
Enduring Concrete Award judge, Morten Gjerde from the Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Architecture , says the church won because of its architectural merit and its owner’s commitment to maintain and enhance its place in the city’s history.
Wellington Central’s first parish church was built soon after 1840 and enlarged several times during its 30-year lifetime. In 1873 a larger church was built and named St Mary of the Angels after the mother church of the Franciscan order in Assisi , Italy . But in 1918 it was destroyed by fire. The following Sunday Father Stanislaus Mahony began planning its replacement.
Gjerde says the planning and construction process are stuff legends are made of.
“Moving quickly after the fire, a rebuilding committee raised the money required. A single bazaar raised a little over £4,000, an astonishing amount.”
Father Mahony contracted architect Frederick de Jersey Clere, at the time the Anglican diocesan architect. His contract with the Catholic parish demonstrates the regard in which he was held.
The sloping and confined site proved challenging, however Clere created a church whose form and space is revered in architectural terms and which is acknowledged as a wonderful place to worship.
He chose Gothic style, however it differs from the conventional layout as it lacks transepts. St Mary of the Angels does have towers which flank the entry and side chapels. Slender arches and columns help ensure a view of the altar from every point.
Clere called for tenders in March of 1919, less than a year after the fire. Construction commenced in April, but less than a year later, perhaps due to WWI shortages and the extortionate price of Portland Cement, the contractors walked off the job.
Father Stanislaus Mahony rose to the challenge. He employed labourers and contractors - and was frequently seen scrambling around scaffolding. As funds were short, he sometimes delayed paying wages until Mondays, using takings from the collection plate.
Repairs in the 1950s halted deterioration, in the 1980s the church was brought up to the then current Wellington City Council standards, and in 1996 it was strengthened further and waterproofed.
Work to improve the church’s seismic performance is yet again required as Building Code expectations have increased. The current parish priest, Father Barry Scannell, has identified possible solutions and fundraising is underway.
“It would be inconceivable that any other material would have led to such fine proportions, spatially and in the structural elements themselves,” says Gjerde. “Not only does the result stand as a testament to concrete as a building material, its use had significant impact on the ability of the parish to complete the task to a reasonable cost.”
The synergy between the principal building materials, architectural design and process of execution led to a building of great significance and innovation
“It has stood the test of time, albeit with the continual input of a committed property owner who continues to look toward the future.”
Among the other notable buildings designed by Clere, who practiced architecture until he was 92 and nearly blind, include the Wellington Harbour Board office which now houses the Academy of Fine Arts; the Bond Store, now the Museum of Wellington City and Sea; St Mary’s Church in Karori; and St Gerard’s Monastery
The Enduring Concrete Award judging panel comprised Convenor Alex Gray of Impact Project Management, Morten Gjerde from the Victoria University of Wellington’s School of Architecture and David Barnard, an honorary member of the NZ Concrete Society.
For more information contact: Morten Gjerde, School of Architecture , Victoria University of Wellington- telephone 04 463 6233 or Morten.Gjerde@vuw.ac.nz