Architect keeps faith in chapel's rich heritage

A sensitive redesign puts an Abbotsford icon in a new light, writes Stephen Crafti.

A sensitive redesign puts an Abbotsford icon in a new light, writes Stephen Crafti.

The Good Shepherd Chapel in Abbotsford appears relatively untouched. But a closer inspection reveals a series of highly considered interventions, as well as thoughtful restoration.

Sensitively redesigned by architect Robert Simeoni, the bluestone chapel recently received a heritage award from the Australian Institute of Architects (Victorian chapter).

Restored stone by stone, Simeoni wanted to maintain the chapel's integrity rather than create an old building made new. "There was an enormous amount of research. Fortunately, the Sisters have a detailed archive. We spent considerable time looking at documents, photos and drawings," Simeoni says.

Built in the 1870s, the chapel had several additions, starting in 1907 with a new wing. Other works occurred in the 1950s. And by the '70s, rudimentary timber walls dissected the spaces.

While the impressive arched timber ceilings were intact, stone columns had been concealed by paint. In other areas, stained glass windows were boarded up. "By the time construction commenced, I knew the building intimately," Simeoni says.

Damaged stonework in the steeple was carefully numbered and replaced and tuck-pointing in the bluestone was required in parts. One of the main changes to the exterior was made at the entrance, with broad concrete steps and landscaping creating a sense of arrival.

And rather than being greeted by heavy 1970s timber partitions, the vista today is 180 degrees, with sight lines drawn from one wing to the other. Fine steel and glass walls loosely delineate the spaces, including the interpretative centre, which tells the story of the Good Shepherd Sisters.

"We deliberately designed these glass walls to stand away from the chapel's original fabric (as stated in the Australian heritage guide of the Burra charter). If further changes are required in the future, the glass can be removed without damaging the structure," Simeoni says.

As the old carpet came up, so did some of the building's history, including a large marble stone (circa 1888) set in the timber floor, honouring one of the founding sisters, Mary of Mount Carmel Curtain.

Simeoni was also mindful of distinguishing new timber floor boards from the original, using fine brass strips as a demarcation line. As part of the renovation, Simeoni designed bronze furniture, including a new altar table, a lectern, as well as a holy water font. Simple and elegant, these items play a secondary role to the original extremely elaborate, marble high altar, richly adorned with figures.

One of the spaces that time forgot was the crypt, slightly below ground level. No longer used, the cavernous space was transformed into an exhibition space, doubling as space for gatherings.

And to increase the amount of light in this area, new windows were installed. One window even frames the burial place where Mary of Mount Carmel Curtain lies. "It's an extremely meditative space. You feel as though you're reading the building's history," says Simeoni, pointing out the brick walls and footings.

The level of detail involved in this restoration can be seen in the stone traceries framing the windows. Some feature highly ornate art-nouveau patterns, while a partnering stone piece is simple and cubic, devoid of any pattern.

"There should be no confusion as to what's original and what has been added. We did as much as necessary and as little as possible," Simeoni says.