It’s loomed over Sydney Road for more than 150 years, but the magnificent former Wesleyan Church is looking worse for wear these days.
A dispute between the building’s private owners, Heritage Victoria and the Department of Education over who is responsible for its upkeep has residents concerned the Brunswick landmark could become a victim of “demolition by neglect”.
Peter Tregear (centre) and members of the Friends of the Former Wesleyan Church group want the property returned for community use.Credit:Eddie Jim
The Gothic revival-style church, constructed in 1872 on donated land on Sydney Road and designed by distinguished architect Percy Oakden, is described by the Heritage Council of Victoria as, “an outstanding and early example of decorative polychromatic architecture in Melbourne”.
But in recent years the church’s impressive frontage has deteriorated: most notably the leadlight windows, which began slipping from their frames in 2017 and allowed rain and birds into the cathedral.
Behind the scenes, meanwhile, a tussle has played out over who is responsible.
The owners of the church, who bought the site in 2011 for $1.5 million, are currently being pursued by Heritage Victoria over the poor state of the building.
The current state of the church’s windows. Heritage Victoria required that they be reinstated by the end of December 2022.Credit:Simon Schluter
Brunswick residents have also questioned the government agency’s decision to allow the owners to convert an architecturally significant, former Sunday school building into serviced offices.
“There is always a degree of trust involved in the planning process,” says Peter Tregear, who in 2021 co-founded Friends of the Former Wesleyan Church and Model Sunday School Brunswick, a group that hoped to rally support for the church to become a community space.
Brunswick’s Wesleyan Church depicted in 1873.Credit:State Library Victoria
“It would be legitimate at the moment to question if there is an appropriate level of trust between the regulator and the developers.” He said he was also concerned about trends in Melbourne where churches have been sold off for private developments.
The Age can reveal the owners hope to convert the church into a commercial space and will submit plans seeking permission to Heritage Victoria in coming weeks.
The Department of Education leased the property – which includes both the church and Sunday school building – from the Uniting Church in 2007 for use as the Sydney Road Community School. The church itself has not had parishioners since the 1970s.
According to correspondence seen by The Age, the property was offered for sale by tender in November 2008 due to the high costs of maintenance (around $500,000). The property sold in April 2009 with the lease intact with the school, and it settled in 2011 when Bunjil Pty Ltd and Tempbak Pty Ltd paid $1.5 million, according to title documents.
One of Bunjil’s directors, real estate agent Duncan McPherson, was contacted by The Age and responded through solicitor Julian Vagg, who said his client didn’t want the church demolished and that its destruction “wouldn’t make commercial sense”.
“They just want to see it become something that can be used,” Vagg said. “They have no intention other than that.”
According to documents prepared by heritage consultants for the owners, the school used the cathedral as a storage and art room until the school relocated to new premises in 2022.
Vagg said his client boarded up the windows as an emergency repair last year over concerns about them falling and injuring people, but had left their replacement to the Department of Education as tenant.
The department holds the lease until May 31, Vagg said, and so was responsible for the work as part of its “make good” obligations. But Vagg said the owners received correspondence from the department last week that said it believed it wasn’t responsible for maintenance orders.
Inside the church in 2022.Credit:Friends of the Former Wesleyan Church
The Age was unable to verify this with the department, which issued a statement stating it “has met its responsibilities as a tenant of the site” and was “working with the owner to ensure this continues up to the end of the lease agreement in May”.
Heritage Victoria maintains the onus lays with the owners for upkeep, and said it was “considering enforcement action” after two missed deadlines: one for the reinstatement of the windows by December 2022 and another for a schedule of repairs by November 2022.
“Owners of state-listed heritage places are legally required to ensure that they are maintained and do not fall into disrepair,” a Heritage Victoria spokeswoman said.
She said a failure to comply included penalties including fines of up to $443,808 and five-year jail terms for individuals, and fines of up to $887,616 for a body corporate.
Tregear said his “friends group” went dormant after being unable to “gain traction” with the owner over ideas for a community space. He also criticised Heritage Victoria’s lack of enforcement over the property’s decaying facade.
“I think there comes a point, and we’re reaching it pretty soon, that voluntary, nonenforceable requests become self-defeating,” he said. “They make a mockery of what heritage protections are supposed to do.”
Another group member, Paul Postema, said the building could feasibly be used as a mid-sized music venue, and was one of the last sites on Sydney Road that could be developed for the public.
“I’d like to think it could become a venue in which diverse groups can use it – for ballets, poetry, exhibitions and places for community interaction,” he said.
“All the apartments being built up around here are rather small and people need places other than bars to meet.”
Vagg said the owners were seeking approval to level the floor of the church, install storage and bathroom facilities and restore it, so it could be used “as a gallery, showroom or function centre scenario”.
“That’s what they think is the best use for the property,” he said.
Merri-bek Council, which is also responsible for issuing permits for works on the site, said Heritage Victoria was the lead agency on the matter. But council officers offered no objection to the heritage permit being granted for the Sunday school.
Greens Brunswick MP Tim Reid, who has previously decried the destruction of other heritage-protected landmarks in the area, said the church was a “Sydney Road landmark and historic building that must be protected”.
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