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Untitled Document

Spires the lasting legacy of Gerald Vanheems

Gerald Vanheems died more than three quarters of a century ago – and yet the Old Paradian’s legacy will surely prevail for as long as the majestic spires of St Ignatius’ and St Pat’s break the skies over Richmond and East Melbourne.

Until recently, Gerald’s life seemed lost in time. Though the name “GW Vanheems” appears amongst the College’s students of the 1880s as listed in The Parade Story, little more was known of him.

But Vanheems’ moniker jumped off a digitised version of The Argus newspaper, dated June 30, 1888, as a member of the Parade College football team drawn to play CBC St Kilda. The team piqued the interest of the Old Paradian Peter Scott (1950), who is researching the College’s earliest known football team (in itself for another day) and, given Vanheems’ unusual surname, a descendant was swiftly sourced through the Melbourne White Pages.

With his assistance, and with the assistance of the digitised newspapers of the day, the following story of GW Vanheems can be told.

Gerald William Vanheems, the second son of Henry Vanheems, was born in 1875. Gerald, it is said, developed an aptitude for mathematics and fascination for design from his early days at Parade.

In September 1912, at St John the Baptist Church in Clifton Hill, Vanheems exchanged marital vows with Mary Britt, the daughter of Edmund Britt the ex-superintendant of the Victoria Police. Together, Gerald and Mary would raise three daughters, Zoe, Geraldine and Jacqueline.

Vanheems pursued a career in architecture. An early commission involved his design of the main buildings and convent of Vaucluse College, which was built in stages between 1897 and 1904. These buildings, including the small gatehouse, are listed as of historical significance to the Richmond Hill area by the Heritage Council of Victoria.

Vanheems’ architectural firm was headquartered at Collins House, 360 Collins Street, from the early years of the 20th century. During this period, Vanheems balanced his working commitments with those as President of the Australian Catholic Federation, which held regular gatherings at such city locales as Sargent’s Café on Elizabeth Street. Inaugurated in Melbourne on December 12, 1911, the Australian Catholic Federation was formed to assist the hierarchy in co-ordinating lay activity.

Ever the innovative architect, Gerald sought new ideas abroad, as The Advocate of July 3, 1930 reported;

“Mr. Gerald W. Vanheems. architect, of Collins-street, left Sydney on Saturday last by the steamer Sierra for San Francisco. It is his intention to tour America, the British Isles and Europe in order to make a special study of ecclesiastical and hospital architecture.”

Early in 1936, Archbishop Mannix instructed Messrs. W. P. Conolly, F.R.A.I.A., and G.W. Vanheems, F.R.A.I.A., architects, to prepare sketches for the completion of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. The first work considered was the erection of the central tower and spire to replace the heavy stunted tower which had surmounted the Cathedral for so many years.

After a number of designs had been prepared, it was finally decided to build the new spire to a height of 340 feet, or about 90 feet higher than that specified in the original model on view in the Cathedral baptistery. This increase in height necessitated a complete revision of the drawings originally made and alteration of the proportions generally.

As a consequence of the increase in height of the central tower and spire, the twin front towers had to be increased in sympathy, to a height of 216 feet, or 15 feet higher than originally intended.

The central tower of St Patrick’s Cathedral would serve as the last (but certainly not the least) of Gerald’s significant architectural works.

On the evening of Thursday, January 12, 1939, shortly after alighting from a car at his home at No.2 Grange Road, Alphington, Gerald William Vanheems collapsed and died. He was 64 years of age.

The following article, penned by Rev. J. Fitzgerald, S.J. and forwarded to the Old Paradians by a member of the Vanheems family, sheds glorious light on that family’s history, and Gerald’s in particular.

In 1793, Martin Vanheems, a Belgian by nationality, was held prisoner by the French revolutionaries. He escaped to an English monastery at St. Omer, and when the monastery was confiscated by the State he fled across the Channel to London; and it is on record that in 1795 he had established a small tailoring business in London. Before the last decade of the nineteenth century the House of Vanheems was noted for its clerical tailoring. But, prior to this, one son of the House became a pioneer in the romantic unknown country of Australia.

In Melbourne, Henry, the eldest son, made his name through his scientific knowledge, especially in relation to scientific instruments. He was a well-known figure at the Observatory, and during the 20 years that he was manager for Gaunt’s, he was timekeeper for the V.R.C.

Gerald, Henry’s second son, was born in 1875. His childhood and youth were spent against the background of his father’s knowledge. Henry was primarily a student, and later Gerald used to astonish his own daughters by mentioning from time to time his father’s work: the huge clock on the judge’s box of the V.R.C., which is used today; Gog and Magog, who strike the time in the Royal Arcade; the fact that he tried to induce the officials of the V.R.C. to use the “camera-eye” now used in America.

Gerald’s own gifts for mathematics and drawing seemed to point to architecture as his career. He studied under Wolfe, whose clientele was later taken over by Desbrowe Annear, one of the most artistic men in the history of Victorian architecture. For the excellence of his work Mr. Vanheems became a Fellow of the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects. His most outstanding work has been ecclesiastical.

In 1926, Mr. Vanheems was commissioned by Fr. P, McGrath to design and draw up plans and specifications for the spire of St. Ignatius’ Church, Richmond; and in 1928 it was completed, a perfect example of Gothic architecture, and described by The Argus as “the delight of every artist”. Its faultlessness of design was the reward for two years’ intense study.

St. Patrick’s Cathedral was to be completed in honour of the Catholic pioneers, and Mr. Vanheems was the son of a pioneer. Travelling abroad had, if possible, equipped him even better than he had been for St. Ignatius’; and, in conjunction with Mr. Connolly, he achieved the same flawless work. Almost every day he could have been seen “on the job”. The photograph printed is one snapped by a workman on the large central spire, which was just completed before he died (on January 12, 1939), leaving his wife and three daughters. Today, the spires stand, “rising gracefully, leading the eye and directing the mind ever upwards to the cross and to God . . . a beacon of faith by night and day . . . a very burst of joy and gladness, signalling the triumphant and glorious Resurrection”. These words are Mr Vanheems’ own, taken from a lecture he delivered shortly before his death. Today those spires stand, a prayer in stone, an imperishable monument to a great and noble mind, a masterpiece of architectural achievement.

The Advocate reported that a solemn Requiem Mass for the repose of the soul of Gerald Vanheems was held, appropriately enough, in St. Patrick’s Cathedral on the Saturday morning after his death. His Grace the Archbishop, Most Rev. Dr. Mannix, presided, and the celebrant was Very Rev. J. Hearn. A choir of forty regular and diocesan priests sung at the Mass, and the large and representative congregation included nuns, Christian Brothers, members of parish organisations and those with professional interests.

At that mass, The Very Rev. Dr. Lyons, Adm., delivered a moving tribute to the man, part of which is reproduced here;

This is indeed a very sad day for us all. It is a sad day for his Grace the Archbishop and for everyone connected with St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and, in fact, for the priests and people of this diocese. We have gathered round the altar of God to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for one who had done so much to complete this magnificent temple of God, and now to his mortal remains we bid a long and sorrowful farewell.

Mr. Vanheems was a good Catholic, a good husband, a devoted father, and a great architect. It is indeed hard to realise that he is gone. Here he was at the Cathedral from day to day as its associate architect, and, in his own quiet and efficient way, engaged in what was for him a real labour of love; he felt proud, and justly proud, as he watched this great Cathedral, as stone by stone it raised its triple head to give to the skyline of our city a new meaning and a new beauty. One moment he was walking among the scaffolding of this great temple of God, and the next moment he is laid beneath the shadow of its majestic spires. His body, indeed, rests in what might well be called the monument which he had built for himself.

Good men and great men die, and their memory lives on, but the memory of the best and the greatest is often dimmed with the passing of time. But Mr. Vanheems has the advantage that he will be long remembered, and longer than all the others, because he has left this great monument—the towers and spires which will speak to this generation and to generations that are to follow of one who laboured so well to fashion them, and who was called to his eternal reward, as we hope, on the eve of finishing the greatest work of his life. We commit the mortal remains of Mr. Vanheems to the grave in the way that he would have chosen for himself. Death is always sad, and the sadness of Mr. Vanheems’ death is made all the more keen, and is all the more felt by its tragic suddenness. Before the altar which he so often admired his body rests; he is to be taken out of the Cathedral which he loved so much, and his obsequies have taken place in the presence of the Archbishop and priests, to whom he was always such a devoted and loyal servant.

To his sorrowing wife and daughters our genuine and heartfelt sympathy goes out. Nobody can take away from them their sorrow, but their great sorrow may be made easier to bear and may be softened by the knowledge that the one whom God chose to take from them in His own good time has left behind him a great monument, and, moreover, has left in the hearts of the Archbishop, priests and Catholic people of Melbourne the memorial of his great devotion to this labour of love, which was almost completed.”

When Gerald’s coffin was carried out of the Cathedral, last prayers were recited by Very Rev. Dr. Lyons and Rev. W. O’Driscoll, and the resident organist Lewis Coad played the “Dead March in Saul” and Chopin’s “Funeral March”.

Gerald William Vanheems, Old Paradian and architect, was laid to rest at Fawkner Cemetery . . . and for as long as the spires stand so too will his vestige prevail.


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