Walter Taylor’s beautiful church
By Susan Prior
Down in suburban Graceville is a white-iced confection of a church, sitting proudly on Oxley Road. It was bequeathed to the area by the remarkable Walter Taylor. This is its story and a small chapter of the man who built it, too.
Walter Taylor leaves an indelible mark on Brisbane, passing on a legacy of buildings, small and large, as well as the bridge that connects the suburbs of Graceville and Chelmer – his home turf – to much of Brisbane. One such building is the instantly recognisable Graceville Uniting Church, which was designed and constructed by him and opened in 1930, some six years before the bridge.
Although left virtually penniless by the death of his father when he was 27, Taylor went on to become a successful businessman who was financially savvy and given to finding inventive ways of raising the cash for his projects. In the case of this church, he was a most generous benefactor, as well.
As a registered heritage building, the history of the church is well documented. It is a unique gothic pre-cast concrete design, built between the wars in the Great Depression. A quick Google search should be enough to tell you all you need to know. What I want to tell you about are some of the less well-known aspects of the church.
Graceville Uniting Church was Taylor’s second church. The first one that he built was the Sherwood Uniting Church, although he didn’t design that one. As a devout Methodist, it is fitting that Taylor’s design should include many symbolic references. Outside there are 33 buttresses. Some of the information available claims that there should have been 34, but when I talked to the church’s former minister, the Reverend Dr Robert Brennan, he said he believes it should have always been 33 and that is how it was designed; it is generally recognised that Jesus was crucified when he was 33. In the bays between each buttress there are three windows representing the Holy Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. These windows are separated by four panels representing the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Twelve windows run down either side of the church, for the 12 Apostles. The windows are shaped as candles, and so it goes on.
Make do and mend
I was intrigued by the simple yet beautiful stained glass windows. Reflecting the mores of the time – it was around the time of Australia's Great depression – Taylor was a past master of the ‘make do and mend’ principle. In his efforts to keep down costs he obtained off-cuts of glass from glass retailers for the windows. These were hand painted and cut into about 8000 panes, which were then assembled into leadlight windows by volunteers from the congregation before and after work beneath Taylor’s home, Glenrae, at 95 Bank Road. Dr Brennan tells me that some of the older members of his congregation were able to recall their parents going there to do this; although, when I spoke to Noel Davis, Taylor’s grandson and author of the book The Remarkable Walter Taylor, he wasn’t sure.
A natural spring passes beneath the building and many residents at the time thought it foolish to build the church on this land. Their concerns were vindicated when the timber floor had to be replaced because the water caused it to rot. Now it is a raked concrete floor covered in tiles and a pump in the basement keeps the water out. Unfortunately, the hall has also suffered damage because of it.
Much of the construction material for the church was donated. This was very much a community effort. The roof tiles were purchased (supporters could buy one for a shilling as a donation) but they were laid free of charge. To help with the building effort the Junior Endeavour Society attempted to build a pile of pennies as high as the spire, thereby raising £500! I would love to see a photo of this effort!
A substantial part of the building was made by pouring concrete into moulds in his workshop – a technique he learned when living in England – which were then transported to the site and assembled. There are an amazing 4500 pre-cast concrete parts.
Did you know that Walter Taylor also proposed:
an underground river tunnel from the Brisbane central business district to Woolloongabba in 1924, which was never built, although the Clem 7 was built many years later in 2010
an underground parking station for the Brisbane CBD in 1938. Likewise it was never built, although a similar project, King George Square carpark, was built in the 1970s.
When I met the previous minister, Dr Brennan, a substantial possum was resident in the roof space, and he was quite concerned about it putting a paw through the ceiling between the beams – the ceiling is made of cardboard, albeit about 2 cm thick!
The brides are getting wider
Finally, one further little known fact: the church used to have two aisles, one to approach the altar and one to withdraw. In the 1970s, the skirts of brides’ wedding dresses became so generous that it was converted to one wider aisle! The first third-generation wedding to took place in the church, in 2016. There have been several second-generation ceremonies already.
Graceville Uniting Church will be part of the Brisbane Open House scheme once again this year. There is so much more to this building than meets the eye and I recommend visiting. You can find more details on the website, brisbaneopenhouse.com.au.