Salvation for our Mid-Century Modern churches?
Alistair McLean
Category: Dr Retro House Calls, Heritage, Real Estate, Renovations

The 1950’s and 1960’s saw the rapid growth of many new suburbs which resulted in a need for the construction of many new churches to support these new communities.  Usually they were designed by local architectural firms, sometimes as a result of a competition, and often funded by the local community.  To match the optimism of the times some were fairly radical for a building type that had a strong tradition over hundreds of years.

For instance traditional churches were often:

  • Large single halls with a strong internal focus,
  • Small windows (often leadlight or stained glass),
  • A strong axis of symmetry,
  • Secondary rooms being minimal and small,
  • Often poorly serviced for electrical and plumbing.

Mid-century modern churches often pushed at the boundaries of this tradition,

  • Large windows, sometimes with french doors opening into courtyards,
  • Interesting geometries in plan (diagonals and even curves),
  • A variety of secondary rooms in size and relationship to the primary space, to serve different community functions,
  • Well serviced with electrical powerpoints, light fittings, hot AND cold running water, and sometimes heating and cooling.

One of Secret Design Studio’s favourite Mid-Century Modern churches is St Faith’s in Melbourne’s Glen Iris designed by architects Mockridge Stahle and Mitchell, which was built in 1957-58. For the Heritage Council of Victoria’s Statement of Significance please visit the Victorian Heritage Database.  Apparently the radical radial design of Mockridge Stahle and Mitchell was initially rejected by the Diocese, so we are very fortunate that this church was actually built at all!

St Faith’s Anglican Church, Glen Iris. Designed by architects Mockridge Stahle and Mitchell, was built in 1957-58 – See more at:

Sixty years later, with congregation numbers dwindling, and parishes amalgamating some of these beautifully designed examples of mid-century modern architecture are in excess of the congregations’ needs, and are disposed of by the church. This involves removing the religious bits and pieces and deconsecrating the building (depending on the faith).  While this is completely understandable from a financial aspect for the church, who can’t afford to maintain an unused building, it does seem a pity from a social history perspective where the local community may have paid for the architect and the building through numerous local donations and fund-raising lamington drives.


Sadly these ex-churches are usually sitting on centrally located, large parcels of prime real-estate, and are sometimes knocked over for town-house developments, and sometimes sub-divided up into apartments.  Secret Design Studio does not know which is a worse fate to befall a church.  One example is the 1957 Methodist Church at 41-43 Nimmo Street, Essendon, where the developer has completely rejected the mid-century modern aesthetic of the existing church to attempt to make it look like a contemporary apartment block. Unfortunately it hasn’t worked and it has ended up like a ghost of the beautiful mid-century modern church that will forever haunt Nimmo Street, and remind the residents of the street’s loss.  Possibly demolition of the church would have been a happier outcome than this compromised solution.


Before – 41 – 43 Nimmo Street, Essendon Designed by Drayton & Colman Architects for the Methodist Church 1957-59. Photo by Steven Coverdale.



After – 41 – 43 Nimmo Street, Essendon Designed by Drayton & Colman Architects for the Methodist Church 1957-59. Photo by Googlemaps.



What is the answer for an unwanted mid-century modern church building?  The answer may lie in this ex-church “St Chad on the Hill” in New Lambton Heights, NSW that has recently come onto the market.

St Chad

For Sale, price guide on request 172 Lookout Road, New Lambton Heights NSW 2305. Photo McGrath Charlestown


It is not the same scale as the old Essendon Methodist Church however it does share a lot of the mid-century modern architectural language.  While this ex-church has been de-consecrated, and converted to a single residence, it has still maintained its church like appearance to the street, including the “St Chad on the Hill” steel signage fixed to the sandstone cladding, which is a nice link to the building’s history.  The church appearance has been maintained, so there shouldn’t be any complaints from the neighbours. For the owners “St Chad on the Hill” is a distinctive, and unique address, and all of the locals will know exactly where it is. Surprisingly the vendors have only owned “St Chad on the Hill” for about three years when they purchased it from the previous owners who completed the residential conversion.  It is fortunate that these vendors have thought about their custodianship of St Chad on the Hill, and their renovations have been minor and sympathetic.


For Sale, price guide on request 172 Lookout Road, New Lambton Heights NSW 2305. Photo McGrath Charlestown

Subdividing up the nave of a church is always architecturally challenging. The nave space is usually a double height space, and while impressive in size, it can feel over-sized and out of scale for one or two people (but great with a congregation).  Part of the challenge is to provide some more intimately scaled spaces, somewhere that is a bit cosier than a church’s nave when converting to a residence, but to still maintain a strong link to the original architecture and nave space. The easy (but wrong) way is to put up a new first floor, with a central hallway and rooms opening off on both sides for both floors, which provides lots of rooms, but by compartmentalising the church completely destroys the feel, which is part of the appeal of buying a church.


For Sale, price guide on request 172 Lookout Road, New Lambton Heights NSW 2305. Photo McGrath Charlestown

The designer of this church to house conversion has managed to walk the tightrope and very successfully managed to preserve a strong link to the original design, while providing 3 separate bedrooms (and bathrooms), a lovely open plan layout with lots of north facing windows, and a mezzanine/retreat area which has a more intimate feel.  Despite the insertion of the bedroom and bathroom “modules” along the southern wall the new building is still unapologetically proud of its history as a mid-century modern church.


For Sale, price guide on request 172 Lookout Road, New Lambton Heights NSW 2305. Photo McGrath Charlestown

So what can be learnt from this church to house conversion (and the mistakes others have made)?

  • If you are looking to buy an old church for re-purposing into a home then the planning, large windows and ancillary rooms that are usually found in a mid-century modern church can be more readily adapted into a home than a church of a more traditional style.
  • Older churches have a lovely romantic feel, but can be much more difficult (and expensive) to install new services such as electrical and plumbing. Sparkies don’t like chasing new conduits into bluestone walls for light switches and powerpoints!
  • Appreciate the heritage of the church, and its original links to the local community, who may well have paid for its design and construction. As local landmarks there is often great community affection for the local church, as well as social heritage for the link to local’s births. deaths and marriages.
  • Think about human scale, proportion and the need for different size rooms for different purposes. A variety of different sized spaces is great, and oversized is not always good when it comes to bathrooms and bedrooms.
  • Appreciate the architecture of the church, and celebrate it. If you want to live in a building that looks like a house don’t buy a church and try and make it look like a house, as it will always end up looking like a compromise.
  • Large open plan spaces look great, such as a repurposed church nave, but aren’t so good when it is your only living space that has to be shared with noisy family members.

If are considering purchasing a church for renovating into a home you may like to contact Secret Design Studio to discuss the opportunities, options and constraints. See our “Dr Retro House Call” page for information.