The Mission to Seamen building, home of the Anglican organisation the Mission to Seafarers, is something of a head turner, with its interesting massing, belfry, Spanish Mission details and curious Norla Gymnasium concrete dome. As the complex reaches its centenary, we have been investigating the fabric and making recommendations for prioritised works, a process that has revealed a history of head scratching over cracks and a leaning chapel. Fortunately, the building seems to not have moved very much in the last 20 years, despite appearances.
[ photo: Jenny Bolis, Lovell Chen ]
The original Mission branch in Melbourne (the Victorian Bethel Union) was set up in 1857 on a large American hulk, the Emily, moored in Hobson’s Bay and functioning as a floating church. In 1907, the Victorian Mission to Seafarers (created 1905) commenced construction of a wharf-side building in what is now Docklands, to the design of Anglican diocese architect Walter Richmond Butler (1864-1949). This first building became know as the Sidderley Street Institute, after its location, very near the present building.
The present mission was also designed by Walter Butler, and built in stages, 1916-19 (opened 11 September 1917). Its construction became necessary as the Melbourne Harbour Trust wanted the Sidderley Street site for wharf alterations — although the building wasn’t demolished until some time between the 1930s and 1973. And it was the proximity of the bustling working wharfs that seems to have caused the first issues for the Mission to Seamen Building, as the second structure is now known. Settlement of the building started almost immediately, and the reason was soon clear when movement ceased during a dockers’ strike. Remediation works were carried out in 1918.
Since then, the building complex had undergone many repairs and interventions, some incompatible with the original fabric. However, the extensive external render cracking appears to be the result of differential movement between different materials, such as brick against the concrete lintels, rather than structural issues.
The Mission to Seamen complex is made up of five sections: a memorial chapel, the former Norla Gymnasium, a chaplain’s residence, a caretaker’s residence and the main building. In the inter-war period, up to 300 seafarers used the mission on a daily basis.