Enduring Concrete Award 2010:
St Mary of the Angels Church, Boulcott Street in Wellington
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.
Paper prepared by Morten Gjerde
School of Architecture, Victoria University of Wellington; Morten.Gjerde@vuw.ac.nz
For reasons that will be abundantly clear to most of us, concrete is sometimes referred to as liquid stone. It is a contemporary building material that can be easily shaped yet is as durable as stone, one of the most ancient of building materials. It is then not too surprising that an architectural form synonymous with stone, the Gothic church, would at some point come to be reconstituted using its ‘liquid’ counterpart. Completed in 1922, Wellington’s St Mary of the Angels is believed to be the world’s first neo-Gothic church built using reinforced concrete construction (McGill 1997). Not only is the church of significant architectural merit, ratified in part by the Category I classification bestowed by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust [NZHPT], but it stands today as a testament to the commitment of its owner to maintain and enhance its place in this city’s history. It is for these reasons that the jury has selected St Mary of the Angels Church to receive the Enduring Concrete Award for 2010. The paper will now proceed to outline some of the important features of this building and the process by which it came to be
Figure 1: St Mary of the Angels, seen here from the northeast across Boulcott Street, adopts a neo-Gothic design agenda using reinforced concrete as the main structural material. The concrete is left exposed as a key architectural feature of the design. The photo was probably taken during construction of the Majestic Centre in the late 1980s.
Source: Marist Archive
Project background and design
St Mary of the Angels is the parish church for Wellington Central. Based originally in a small house on Wellington’s waterfront, the parish was led to build its first church on the current site in Boulcott Street [opposite the current Majestic Centre] by Father Jeremiah O’Reilly. This original church, enlarged several times, served the parishioners for some 30 years. In 1873, it was decided to build a larger structure to cope with the rapidly expanding population.
The new church was opened as the first St Mary of the Angels, a name taken from the mother church of the Franciscan order in Assisi, Italy. The timber building cost £1,500 to build and could seat 450 worshippers. In 1918, after only
45 years of service, the church was destroyed by fire. The following Sunday, Father Stanislaus Mahony called a meeting to discuss rebuilding and it was soon decided to engage the services of architect Frederick de Jersey Clere, who at the time was the Anglican diocesan architect.
Figure 2: Drawing of the principal elevation, facing Boulcott and Willis Streets, by Clere & Williams. Note the stair required to provide access from street level up to the porch that serves as a gathering place before entering nave.
The design is in the style of the French Gothic (Kernohan 1994), strongly perpendicular, and the principal east elevation can be seen to have been modelled closely on the old collegiate church of Saints-Michel-et-Gudule in Brussels. The Evening Post (1919) wrote that “it was decided by the authorities that Gothic should be the style, but it was left to the architects to choose the phase”, suggesting that the overall direction of the design was not Clere’s. However, Thornton (1996) and Maclean (2002) both point out that he had earlier prepared a design for the Anglican Cathedral following a similar idiom.
The siting of the church is somewhat unfortunate, particularly in relation to the development that has come to surround the site today. The site was never going to be easy, sitting on a moderately rising east facing slope above Willis Street. Unlike the cathedral that serves as its precedent, which opens to a generous public space, entry to St Mary of the Angels is located tightly against Boulcott Street, a condition made worse by the difference in levels. Clere’s solution is ingenious, forming a modest porch at the level of the nave, which can be accessed from the street along a generous staircase located asymmetrically in plan.
The design adopts a reinforced concrete structural frame with the bays infilled with a pale, sandy coloured brick. The concrete is shaped intricately, enabling particularly delicate proportions over what could have been achieved using the traditional stone materials aligned with the Gothic language (McCarthy, Howes et al. 2004). Although McGill (1997) claims that respect for fire had caused Clere to break out of his timber mould, other sources are not as certain about this, at least in respect of his design for St Mary of the Angels. Indeed, Clere had already begun to use concrete in his work, with the design for St Mary’s in Karori based on concrete in 1911. Clere and his business partner Llewellyn Williams were both members of the Concrete Institute of London and by the time he came to design St Mary of the Angels, Clere had designed five churches in reinforced concrete.
Following the fire, his preference for the material may have influenced the parish in their selection of architect and undoubtedly this has provided them with confidence in respect of the robustness of their investment.
Figure 3: Interior view of the nave, showing primary structural elements formed in concrete.
Source: Woolf Photograph
St Mary of the Angels is the most impressive of Clere’s churches and the most cathedral-like, perhaps in part helping him overcome disappointment that came with his failure a year earlier to secure the commission to design the new Anglican cathedral in Wellington (Maclean 2002). Clere’s design adopts a plan that is modified from the conventional Gothic church layout, in that it lacks transepts. However, other features of the Gothic have found their way into the design such as the side chapels and the two magnificent towers flanking the entry. In words that are reminiscent of Modern design philosophy of form following function, Clere claimed that the size of the concrete window mullions practically governed the design of St Mary of the Angels (Maclean 2002).
By this he meant that the slender mullions able to be formed using concrete gave him an opportunity to incorporate the three-light windows at the clerestory level instead of the two frames associated with stone construction in the same location. The result is a splendid, light filled arcade running the length of the nave.
However, it was in the details of the structural elements that Clere was able to bring the Gothic proportions into the 20th Century. After toying initially with traditional timber framing methods for the roof he eventually came to see the primary structure as the gracefully curving concrete beams we see today. The visual weight of the structure is stripped back with the aid of king post and collar tie, effectively marrying Medieval and contemporary architecture in this one element as well as more generally throughout the building. The form and space of the church have come to be highly revered in architectural terms, and the design is also acknowledged to be a wonderful place to worship.
The slender form of the arches and columns help ensure a clear view of the altar from every point in the nave (Evening Post 11 March1922).
Figure 4: Frederick de Jersey Clere on his 90th birthday in 1946.
Source: Maclean 2003
Trained as an architect in the United Kingdom, Frederick de Jersey Clere arrived in Wellington with his family at the age of 21 and it is here he became well known as a builder of churches. During his career he designed and built more than a hundred buildings associated with faith and worship in the period 1881 to 1933 with most of these located in the lower half of the North Island. Notable religious buildings in the Wellington region credited to Clere include St Mary’s Church in Karori, also built in concrete, and St Gerard’s Monastery. St Gerard’s is the iconic centrepiece of the scene that is often used to express Wellington’s identity, comprising of the church by John Sydney Swan and Clere’s later monastery, both perching precariously on the escarpment above Oriental Bay. Another
ten church designs were never built for one reason or another. An indication of the high regard held for Clere’s ability is the fact that the Wellington Catholic parish was able to set aside assumed parochial biases to engage the services of the Anglican’s diocesan architect.
Other buildings in Wellington that are credited to Frederick de Jersey Clere include the offices of the Wellington Harbour Board, now home to the Academy of Fine Arts, and the Bond Store, currently the Museum of Wellington City and Sea. These two handsome buildings form the portal to the waterfront at Queen’s Wharf. Clere had a long and productive life as an architect and did not fully retire from practice until he was 92, by which time he was near enough to blind. He lived another four years and will be remembered as the consummate professional, an architect of unquestioned integrity in his dealings with builders, clients and materials (Maclean 2002).
The construction process that brought the church to be on this site is stuff legends are made of.
Moving quickly after the fire, a rebuilding committee coordinated efforts to raise the money required for rebuilding beyond the £2,525 insurance payout on the timber church. A single bazaar managed to raise a little over £4,000, an astonishing amount when compared to the total required to build the new church. Designs were prepared by the architects and Clere called for tenders in March of 1919, less than a year after the fire. Then in April of 1919, Father Mahony instructed Clere to let a contract to H. E. Manning (St Mary of the Angels Parish date unknown) in the amount of £27,500.
The foundations took some time to complete but a more significant impediment to progress on site was the general difficulty of obtaining building materials, as the start of construction coincided with the end of the First World War. Even so, there was optimism about the time it would take to build the church once the project had come out of the ground.
In November of 1919 it was reported that the building would be substantially complete in twelve months time. A key material on this site was of course Portland cement for the concrete and mortar. The Evening Post (1922), reporting in great
detail about the construction process, explaining that much of the cement had to be imported, some from as far away as Canada and Belgium!
In addition to uncertainty of supply, the price the contractor had to pay bordered on being extortionate. Church records (date unknown) indicate the price paid for cement was three times its actual value at the time. For reasons not entirely clear, perhaps most closely related to the frustration of delays caused by material shortages, the contractor walked off the job less than a year after starting.
The task of completing the project then fell to Father Mahony who, aided by Martin Moloney, rose ably to the task. In addition to running the parish he immersed himself in project, working closely with the architect and often seen scrambling around on the scaffolding to instruct the foremen he employed. He engaged labourers for the work on day rates and not many of them were particularly
skilled. Again, the predominant use of concrete in this project could be seen to enable the construction to proceed in this manner. Had the church been designed to be constructed in stone, trained masons would have been required (McGill 1997) and no doubt they would have commanded considerably higher wages. McGill also states that “the rendering of the rich ornamentation with concrete moulds was an innovation prompted by lack of money…” (McGill 1997,p138), further helping to ensure the costs of the project could be closely controlled. Nevertheless, funds often ran short and Father Mahony could often be found making the rounds of the construction site on Fridays asking the workmen to wait until the following Monday for their wages to be paid out (date unknown) . The Catholic community, as Father Mahony had put it, “had availed themselves of the privilege of paying for the new church”(Evening Post 11 March 1922) in large part through their donations at mass on Sundays, week in and week out.
Source: Marist Archiv
When it was consecrated in March of 1922, “Clere,[Mahony] and unskilled concrete pourers had created a stunning Gothic presence Down Under” (McGill 1997, p139). The financial position of the church in respect of this project was widely reported, in a manner that seems unusual today. According to the Evening Post (27 March 1922) the final cost for the buildings stood at something in the region of £31,165 and £25,884 had been collected toward this amount. Although loans were raised for the remaining cost of the project, including furnishings, Father Mahony quickly set about to drive the debt down. Indeed the commitment to the project by the community as a whole is evidenced by offerings approaching £2,000 that were received at the time St Mary of the Angels was opened.
Problems arising through the construction have become apparent with the passage of time. For reasons not stated in the literature, moulds were often not completed in a single pour and the cold construction joints were found to reduce the structural strength of the concrete. Over a relatively short period and aggravated by several earthquakes, structural deficiencies became apparent (Maclean 2002). Three separate programmes of repair and restoration have so far taken place.
In the 1950s a programme of repairs designed to halt further deterioration was undertaken, including removal of the decorative finials on top of the side wall buttresses (Fearnley 1977). It was not until a comprehensive project undertaken in the 1980s was completed that the building was brought up to the prevailing Wellington City Council standards. Also during this project it was discovered that the original stormwater discharge system had been unable to cope with the volumes of water collected by the roof. To the disappointment of many, the original Welsh slate roof was replaced by a copper roof, which “altered unnecessarily the colour, texture and pattern of the roof.” (Kernohan 1994) However, it is also thought that the slate roof remains in place under the copper and that it can resurface at some point in the future to restore that part of the building to its original design (Gjerde and Gray 2010). Also at that time work was undertaken to direct seismic loads in the roof out to the stronger elements at each end. The two towers were strengthened and electrical wiring replaced. Apparently the wiring was so dangerous that the heaters had not been used for the three years leading up to the project (Maclean 2002). Other, perhaps more contentious changes were initiated to the interior layout to better accommodate changes in the Catholic liturgy that informed the original planning layout.
Another project of restoration and repair was completed in 1996, including epoxy injection of the rogue cold joints in the concrete to help control water ingress and improve strength. In 2002, Maclean (, p101) stated that “St Mary’s is in better condition now than ever.” However, such statements must be also taken with a grain of salt in respect of buildings located in earthquake prone regions. Understanding of the severity of these natural forces and how best to limit damage to the built environment is constantly improving. In response, expectations for life safety and protection of important infrastructure also advance, leading on to changes in the prevailing performance standards. The church is now faced with another significant project to further improve seismic performance and hopefully secure the ongoing use and enjoyment of St Mary of the Angels. The current parish priest, Father Barry Scannell, has explained that one of several ideas they are considering is to base isolate the building (Gjerde and Gray 2010). Planning for this and alternate schemes has now been advanced to the point where costs can be estimated and these are now known to be significant. Fundraising is again under way. It would seem that fundraising, first associated with the initial building works, is now deeply embedded in the culture of the parish. It can only be hoped that funds can be secured to enable another round of structural improvements that will see the useful life of this church building, which contributes so positively to our culture and history, further extended.
In contemporary Wellington, the location of St Mary of the Angels has perhaps limited the extent to which the general public has come to appreciate its fine qualities. Indeed, each of the three judges was unfamiliar with the interior of the church despite having walked past and admired it from Boulcott Street for many years. However, at the time it was built, the church enjoyed significant notoriety, not only because of its evocative design but also because of the hands on approach taken by the parish priest, Father Stanislaus Mahony.
The building is deserving of wider recognition and it is of particular significance for the concrete industry. The choice of the concrete for the primary structure, expressed in the Gothic format, has strongly influenced the design outcome. It would be inconceivable that any other material would have led to such fine proportions, spatially and in the structural elements themselves. Not only does the final result stand as a testament to concrete as a building material, the use of concrete also had significant impact on the ability of the parish to complete the task to a reasonable cost despite the high cost of Portland cement at the time. According to Wayne Nelson (cited Shaw 2003, p 110) the church is a “tour de force in the art and craft of the machine….particularly as Clere’s design was executed not by trained stone masons but by day labourers with no more skill than the ability to handle a concrete mixer and a mould”.
The synergy between the principal building materials, architectural design and process of execution in this project 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. For these reasons it is appropriate that the New Zealand Concrete Society bestows St Mary of the Angels in Wellington with its Enduring Concrete Award for 2010.
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