A Chapel for the Saints, a Landmark for Australia

During the long, hot summer of northeastern Australia, a tourist bus regularly rolls through the palm-lined streets of a small rural community at the edge of the Great Dividing Range.

On a map, this isolated community is indistinguishable from dozens of others scattered across the more fertile parts of the continent. But a street sign at the town’s entrance informs visitors that it’s known as Charters Towers. Born in the gold mining boom of the last century, it was once a bustling mining and cattle grazing center. Today, its residents total just 7,650, and its economic significance has been eclipsed by the expanding coastal city of Townsville, seventy-five miles away.

The tourists visit Charters Towers for a purpose. The town is almost a living architectural museum, one of the few places in Australia where buildings erected at the turn of the century are still used extensively.

After stopping at the old Stock Exchange and the New South Wales bank building, the bus turns off the main street, heads up a hill, and stops alongside a contemporary church spire in Deane Street. The sign on the grounds reads: “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

But this chapel is unlike those built on any standard plan. The building is a remarkable example of Australian colonial architecture, a former gold miner’s homestead so faithfully restored by the Church that one local historian has described it as “a page straight out of a history book.”

Now home to the Charters Towers Branch of the Church, it was formerly known as Pfeiffer House, after German miner Friedrich Pfeiffer, who built it in the 1870s. The transition from its dilapidated state two years ago to award-winning tourist attraction today makes it unique among Church buildings worldwide. Its restoration did not depend on large sums of money or public appeals for funds, but on fasting and prayer, on remarkable teamwork and unusual talent, on sacrifice and commitment.

The Charters Towers Branch was organized as a unit of the Townsville District, Australia Brisbane Mission, in August of 1978. Its branch president was Owen Pershouse, a local jeweler who had been baptized only four months earlier.

Within a year, President Pershouse’s civic involvement in the town had led to his election as mayor of Charters Towers. During the same period, the new branch of the Church had started what was to be a long search for land to build a chapel.

“About mid-1981, we had selected two possible blocks of land and were expecting a visit from Norm Gordon (the Church Real Estate Manager in Australia) to help make a decision,” President Pershouse recalls.

The evening before Brother Gordon’s arrival, “I had a visit from a man who introduced himself as Derek Wilkins, who said he had heard we were looking for land.” The visitor explained that he had bought the run-down Pfeiffer House, well known in the town, about three years earlier with the intention of restoring it. However, the need for restoration appeared to be too extensive, and he had abandoned the idea. He had decided the previous evening to sell.

The next day, local district and branch priesthood leaders, together with the Church real estate manager, inspected all three parcels of land. On Brother Gordon’s suggestion, they knelt in prayer at a secluded spot on the Pfeiffer House block and asked for guidance.

“I hadn’t been in the Church long,” President Pershouse says, “and I didn’t have a lot of experience, but there was no doubt at all in my mind after that prayer. I could hardly stand up, I felt so emotional. I think all of us felt that way. Brother Gordon said that in all his years buying and selling Church properties, he had never had such a strong feeling over a block of land.”

It was the land that seemed attractive, not the building. The old home was evidently beyond repair, and would need to be demolished to make way for a new chapel.

After it became known in the town that the Church had negotiated the purchase of Pfeiffer House, local residents began approaching Church leaders with pleas to restore the building. “It seemed three-quarters of the town had grandparents who used to work in the old place!” President Pershouse says. “Many of these people were our own local members, and they would advance all kinds of reasons why they felt attached to it.”

Even though the local office of the National Trust (a governmental organization which assesses the value of historic buildings and must grant permission if a valuable building is to be destroyed) had admitted the structure was “probably beyond redemption,” it was agreed the matter would be referred to the Church Area Offices in Sydney for a decision.

Few people in Australia would have had the experience to recognize the old building’s potential, but two of them were working for the Church’s Construction Division in Sydney. Graham Sully, a stake president and at that time Building Division manager, was an accomplished architect. Before working for the Church he had been project architect on Australia’s biggest urban restoration effort, the Glebe Project in Sydney. Andrew Witte was regional supervisor for northern Australia. A Dutchman, he had sixteen years’ experience in restoring parts of Old Amsterdam and war-damaged buildings in the Netherlands.

President Sully recalls: “The two of us looked at the building very closely. The main structure of the house was sound, although the veranda had collapsed and the building needed very extensive repair. We concluded that it was not only possible to restore it, but that we could possibly do so for less money than it would cost to build a new chapel.”

The project was proposed to Church headquarters on that basis, with the additional benefit of making a contribution to the community. It was approved.

What followed was a form of teamwork and a unity in approach that still causes the two men reflection. “Andrew was a joy to work with,” President Sully says. “There was a kind of chemistry in our working relationship in which each of us knew exactly what the other was trying to do. Not once did I have to argue a point or try to persuade.”

Other men were brought into the team. Bill Meixner, project supervisor on the site, had one of the toughest jobs—replacing the wooden stumps on which the house sat. Stumps used to elevate homes from the ground are common in Queensland, but white ants (termites) had eaten into every one of the originals.

Brother Meixner and LDS carpenter Les Knight worked on the site and hired contract labor as needed. Charters Towers members contributed many hours of unskilled labor, including scraping off the old paint.

“Bill Meixner and Les Knight did a tremendous job on site,” says Brother Witte, now construction manager for the Church in the Australia/New Zealand areas.

They lived there, and the restoration project became their hobby as well as their work, he comments. “Everyone felt it was something special.” Members from other areas helped with the project too. Brother Meixner was later to marry one of the Townsville sisters who had helped on the restoration.

In Sydney, Brother Witte and his son Jack worked many hours on their own time, for love of the project and to help keep it within the budget, reproducing decorative woodwork. They hauled it to the site in suitcases, traveling by air. Andrew Witte also drew up the restoration plans at home, including a design for a new toilet block (bathroom area) perfectly in character with the rest of the old building. Area Architect Don Crosbie oversaw the plans.

The local newspaper, the Northern Miner, noted at the completion of the work: “Trying to describe absolutely everything that had to be done on the old place would be to write a small book.”

The cost of the entire project, including land, was almost $170,000 Australian (about $190,000 in U.S. dollars), of which $100,000 was spent on restoration and landscaping. The figure is a fraction of the cost of new chapels in Australia.

In December of 1983, eight months after the chapel’s official opening, the Church was presented with an award from the National Trust of Queensland for “excellence in restoration.” Another award, this time from the National Trust of Australia, is scheduled later this year.

Owen Pershouse, who finished his term as Charters Towers’ mayor in 1982, but is still branch president, comments:

“There isn’t a person in the town who doesn’t know what the Church has done. We have shown the Church not only to be an expanding organization, but one which has sensitivity and concern for the community.”

[photos] Members of the Charters Towers Branch transformed the deteriorating Pfeiffer House (bottom right), a gold miner’s homestead built in the 1870s, into an award-winning tourist attraction and a unique home for the branch. Inset photos (upper right) show detail of the building’s decorative woodwork, made by Andrew and Jack Witte at their home in Sydney and flown to the site in suitcases.

Michael Otterson is area public communications director for the Church in Sydney.