Some buildings are revolutionary. Literally. Like kick-out-the-Brits type revolutionary. And you probably wouldn’t think that a humble church hall in Claremont would be the place to start looking for this. But you should.
If you travel down Stirling Highway, probably cursing the traffic as you crawl along, you’ll notice Congregational Hall at Claremont, which was built in 1896. The church, on the right in the picture above, was erected a decade later. While it might not seem much to look at now, the hall was part of a movement to rid ourselves of British influence.
When people in the 1890s started talking about Federation and a new country, architects were not going to be left out of this exciting new movement. Henry Stirling Trigg was the first qualified architect to be born in Western Australia so, unsurprisingly, he wanted to contribute. But if English architecture was to be abandoned, where was he going to look for new ideas? He needed a country that had also broken free from the motherland and formed its own identity. Naturally, he thought of the good old U. S. of A.
The Americans call the style the ‘Richardsonian’, but we decided it was sexier to described the architecture as being ‘American Romanesque’. The easiest way to spot it is to look for rounded arches and, quite often, rustication, which is where you cut back the edges of the stone leaving a perfectly regular block with a rough surface in the middle.
The entrance to Congregational Hall and the windows above are good examples of the American Romanesque at work. Even better is the very fine Trinity Church on St George’s Terrace, also by Henry Stirling Trigg and opened in 1893. Although it’s in brick not stone, this is American Romanesque at its finest.
Or nearly its finest, because there was an even better building which we have now lost. On the corner of St George’s Terrace and Howard Street used to be Surrey Chambers. Designed by Edward Herbert Dean Smith in 1903, this was one of the greatest buildings ever to be put up in Perth. Just look at those rounded arches. And, if you feel like being depressed, go and look at what’s replaced it.
So, there you have it. An imported style of architecture specifically intended to be not-British for a new nation which saw itself coming into being. Next time you see these rounded arches, you’ll know that it wasn’t just a fashionable design, it was a political statement.