During 1916 the British born Australian architect Walter Richmond Butler (1864 – 1949) designed a new Anglican Mission to Seamen to be built on an oddly shaped triangular block of land at 717 Flinders Street on the outskirts of the Melbourne central city grid, to replace smaller premises located in adjoining Siddeley Street, which had been resumed by the Harbour Trust during wharf extensions.
The Missions to Seamen buildings, built on reinforced concrete footings, are in rendered brick with tiled roofs. Walter Butler designed the complex using an eclectic mixture of styles, one of which was the Spanish Mission Revival which had become a prevalent style on the west coast of America, especially in California and New Mexico during the 1890s. The style revived the architectural legacy of Spanish colonialism of the Eighteenth Century and the associated Franciscan missions. The revival of the style is explicit in the Mission’s small, yet charming chapel with its rough-hewn timber trusses, in the bell tower with its pinnacles and turret surmounted by a rustic cross and in the monastic-like courtyard, which today still provides a peaceful retreat from the noisy world just beyond the Missions to Seamen’s doorstep. The chapel also features many gifts donated by members of the Harbour Trust and Ladies’ Harbour Lights Guild, including an appropriately themed pulpit in the shape of a ship's prow and two sanctuary chairs decorated with carved Australian floral motifs. Some of the stained glass windows in the chapel depict stories and scenes associated with the sea intermixed with those Biblical scenes more commonly found in such places of worship.
The adjoining Mission to Seamen’s administration, residential and recreational building shows the influence of English domestic Arts and Crafts architecture, with its projecting gable, pepper pot chimneys and three adjoining oriel windows. The lobby, with its appropriately nautically inspired stained glass windows, features a large mariner's compass inlaid in the terrazzo floor. Built-in timber cupboards, wardrobes, paneling and studded doors throughout the buildings evoke a ship's cabin.
Walter Butler, architect to the Anglican Diocese in Melbourne, had come to Australia with an intimate knowledge and experience of the Arts and Crafts movement and continued to use the style in his residential designs of the 1920s. The main hall has a reinforced concrete vaulted ceiling. Lady Stanley, wife of the Mission's patron, Governor Sir Arthur Lyulph Stanley, laid the foundation stone of the complex in November 1916. The buildings were financed partly by a compensation payment from the Harbour Trust of £8,500.00 and £3,000.00 from local merchants and shipping firms. The Ladies' Harbour Lights Guild raised over £800.00 for the chapel. Most of the complex was completed by late 1917 whilst the Pantheon-like gymnasium with oculus was finished soon afterwards. The substantially intact interiors, including extensive use of wall paneling in Tasmanian hardwood, form an integral part of the overall design.
The Missions to Seamen buildings are architecturally significant as a milestone in the early introduction of the Spanish Mission style to Melbourne. The style was to later find widespread popularity in the suburbs of Melbourne. The choice of Spanish Mission directly refers to the Christian purpose of the complex. The Missions to Seamen buildings are unusual for combining two distinct architectural styles, for they also reflect the imitation of English domestic architecture, the Arts and Crafts movement. Walter Butler was one of the most prominent and progressive architects of the period and the complex is one of his most unusual and distinctive works.
The Missions to Seamen buildings have historical and social significance as tangible evidence of prevailing concerns for the religious, moral, and social welfare of seafarers throughout most of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. The complex has a long association with the Missions to Seamen, an organisation formed to look after the welfare of seafarers, both officers and sailors, men "of all nationalities". It had its origins in Bristol, England when a Seamen's Mission was formed in 1837. The first Australian branch was started in 1856 by the Reverend Kerr Johnston, a Church of England clergyman, and operated from a hulk moored in Hobsons Bay; later the Mission occupied buildings in Williamstown and Port Melbourne. In 1905 the Reverend Alfred Gurney Goldsmith arrived at the behest of the London Seamen's Mission to establish a city mission for sailors working on the river wharves and docks. The building reflects the diverse role played by the Mission with its chapel, hall and stage, billiards room, reading room, dining room, officers' and men’s quarters, chaplain's residence, and gymnasium. It is still in use to this day under the jurisdiction of a small, but passionate group of workers, providing a welcome place of refuge to seamen visiting the Port of Melbourne.
Walter Butler was considered an architect of great talent, and many of his clients were wealthy pastoralists and businessmen. His country-house designs are numerous and include “Blackwood” (1891) near Penshurst, for R. B. Ritchie, “Wangarella” (1894) near Deniliquin, New South Wales, for Thomas Millear, and “Newminster Park” (1901) near Camperdown, for A. S. Chirnside. Equally distinguished large houses were designed for the newly established Melbourne suburbs: “Warrawee” (1906) in Toorak, for A. Rutter Clark; “Thanes” (1907) in Kooyong, for F. Wallach; “Kamillaroi” (1907) for Baron Clive Baillieu, and extensions to “Edzell” (1917) for George Russell, both in St Georges Road, Toorak. These are all fine examples of picturesque gabled houses in the domestic Queen Anne Revival genre. Walter Butler was also involved with domestic designs using a modified classical vocabulary, as in his remodelling of “Billilla” (1905) in Brighton, for W. Weatherley, which incorporates panels of flat-leafed foliage. Walter Butler also regarded himself as a garden architect.
As architect to the diocese of Melbourne from 1895, he designed the extensions to “Bishopscourt” (1902) in East Melbourne. His other church work includes St Albans (1899) in Armadale, the Wangaratta Cathedral (1907), and the colourful porch and tower to Christ Church (c.1910) in Benalla. For the Union Bank of Australia he designed many branch banks and was also associated with several tall city buildings in the heart of Melbourne’s central business district such as Collins House (1910) and the exceptionally fine Queensland Insurance Building (1911). For Dame Nellie Melba Butler designed the Italianate lodge and gatehouse at “Coombe Cottage” (1925) at Coldstream.