Friday, September 11, 2009

Repurposing architecture

The other day we went for a wander around our bit of Canberra. On the way home, we passed this church. I’ve gone past it dozens of times in the past months, but I’d never really looked at it properly, so we stopped to have a nose around. We couldn’t go inside, but it had one of those helpful local historical society signs outside, which enabled me to learn all about the building’s bizarre history.

You may not be able to tell very well from the picture, but the church has somewhat odd proportions—note the giant front door, for instance. This is because the building started its life as a railway station. But its resemblance to a church is not accidental; it was not an ordinary railway station, but a Mortuary Station, built specially to service trains to Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney.

(Rookwood is itself notable: it is the largest cemetery, or, as it is officially known, “necropolis” in the Southern Hemisphere, and has been operating since the mid-nineteenth century, when it was built to relieve pressure on older cemeteries in Sydney that were reaching capacity.)

Because of Rookwood’s distance from Sydney’s center, a spur line of the railway, and the Mortuary Stations, were built to service funeral parties. There were three stations in different parts of the cemetery (serving different denominations), plus one at the main entrance and another one at the start of the line in Sydney, adjacent to the central railway station; they were deliberately designed to create an appropriately solemn atmosphere for funeral processions. The stations (and the line) were in use until 1948, when they were rendered obsolete by increased use of cars and roads. All Saints Church was formerly Mortuary Station No. 1; it was purchased by an Anglican minister for £100 and relocated to Canberra in 1957.

Many of the building’s other architectural features also started life somewhere else: one of the stained-glass windows came from a church in England that was bombed during World War II; the church bell came from a train; and the tower was originally located on the other side of the building.

If you look carefully at the tower, you can see two dates on it: at the top, “1868,” when the building was originally dedicated; and underneath it, “1958,” when it was re-dedicated as a church. Quite an amazing story, really, of historical preservation and thrift.

Canberra may be nearly brand-new, as cities go (it’s not even 100 yet!), but it still manages to present interesting bits of history here and there--often when I least expect it.


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