St Stephen’s architecture shines

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Tamahere’s St Stephen’s Church has won a prestigious architectural award – nearly half a century after it was built.

St Stephen's award recipients
George Dingle, right, who fought for the church to be rebuilt, with Rev Ellen Bernstein, and, from left, Ann and Brenda Sayers, family of the late David Sayers, whose firm designed the church

The church, on the corner of Airport Rd and Tamahere Drive, received an enduring architecture award in the annual Waikato / Bay of Plenty Architecture Awards announced last night.

On hand to receive the award at a ceremony at Waikato University was local George Dingle, one of the last remaining parishioners who fought hard to have the church built after its predecessor was destroyed by arson.

Also there to receive the award was St Stephen’s vicar, the Rev Ellen Bernstein, and the wife and daughter of one of the principals of the architecture firm that designed the church.

From the ashes

St Stephen’s was built in 1972 to replace a timber church built 90 years earlier, in 1882, but destroyed by fire in 1970.

The fire was arson, committed by a Jehovah’s Witness who objected to worship on Sundays. The only piece of the old church to survive was the wrought iron ridge cross which now hangs on the east wall of the Sanctuary as a centre piece.

Support for a new church was divided, as many of the parish felt that the close proximity to Hamilton rendered a church at Tamahere redundant and excessive; the church was nearly not built.

St Sephen's exterior
The modern St Stephen’s retains features of its Gothic predecessor (Photos: Marg Forde)

The modest size of the church reflects the limited budget which was supplemented by community grants. One stipulation of these grants was that the public must be able to access the church building at all times, and this is evident by traces of a partition wall (now removed) dividing the Nave in two, and two doors off the entrance lobby into the building; one to each space.

Church design

The rural parishioners wanted their new, ‘traditional’ church built in masonry and timber. The roof structure consists of four diagonally boarded timber trusses spanning the building longitudinally sheathed originally in metal tiles (since replaced) and the walls reinforced concrete block masonry, recorded the award citation.

The design architect was Barry Morris, then a junior partner of the firm Gillman Garry Clapp and Sayers.

St Stephen's interior
The building blocks were left to speak for themselves; simply painted white

At St Stephen’s, the Modernist architecture approach to the concrete block was to let it speak for itself. It was not covered with plaster or dressed up to look like stone; the blocks are simply painted white.

The first St Stephen’s was a timber, Gothic Revival style building, with a bell tower, lancet arched windows, and separate entrance porch and sanctuary, built in kauri and clad in Kahikatea.

The new church lost the Gothic detail but remains recognisable as a church. The blockwork projects as buttresses at the eastern end of the church, in which the altar is traditionally located. At the west end is the entrance porch and the vestiges of Gothic ecclesiastical design can also be found in the verticality of the bell tower and the cross at the gable apex.

Today, the building retains its simple modest appeal and rural charm. Mature trees and an elevated site set above busy roads ensure the church and its park‐like grounds retain a sense of peace and dignity befitting its purpose.

The church is as crisp, charming, and functional today as when it was first built 44 years ago.

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