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Gawler, John Stevens (1885–1978)

by Miles Lewis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

John Stevens Gawler (1885-1978), architect, was born on 20 May 1885 at West Ham, Essex, England, son of John Miller Gawler, insurance clerk, and his wife Kate, née Stevens. The family emigrated to Melbourne in 1886. Educated at Brighton State and University High schools, young John began his career as office-boy with an estate agent before working for an architect and becoming a junior draftsman. His employer granted him articles without a fee. In 1903 Gawler was awarded a bronze medal by the Royal Victorian Institute of Architects for a drawing of part of the Melbourne law courts.

In 1907 he left Melbourne with a two-year contract to oversee a building project at Canton (Guangzhou), China; he continued on a working tour of the world, returning home in 1912. In September he was appointed Walter Burley Griffin's representative. Gawler's first major commission may have been Wenley House, Flinders Lane. Another of his early works, St Agnes's, Black Rock (1913), was the forerunner of a substantial body of work for the Church of England. On 7 March 1914 at St Agnes's he married American-born Ruth Miller Woodworth, whom he had met on his travels. That year he entered into partnership with Walter A. Drummond and accepted a part-time position as an assistant-lecturer at the University of Melbourne.

From 1917 to 1919 Gawler served in the Australian Imperial Force and saw action on the Western Front (1918) as a sapper in the 10th Field Company, Engineers. Appointed lecturer in architecture at the University of Melbourne in 1920, he immediately pressed for and obtained a temporary building (towards the cost of which his own firm donated £16,360). He drafted proposals for the establishment of a four-year degree course, introduced in 1928, and was elected dean of the faculty in 1938.

The practice of Gawler & Drummond was prolific, though undistinguished. The firm designed a range of domestic, industrial, commercial and church buildings, as well as the metallurgy school at the university. The only technically interesting aspect of its work was the early use of brick-veneer construction in the McRorie house (1916) at Camberwell, almost certainly the result of Gawler's time at Chicago, United States of America, where the method was popular. The most distinctive work was the Deaf and Dumb Society's church at Jolimont (1929). From 1918 the largest client was the Fitzroy department store, Ackmans Ltd, with its associated factories: the proprietors' satisfaction was reflected in the endowment of a travelling scholarship for architecture students. In 1941 E. S. Churcher replaced Drummond as Gawler's partner.

Gawler was more important as an educator, activist and reformer rather than as a designer. He served as a council-member of the Shire of Nunawading and later (1927-51) of the City of Box Hill, and was president (1948-50) of the Municipal Association. As controller of building permits with the Department of War Organization of Industry from 1940, he was responsible for the approval of civil-construction work in Victoria. In 1943 Prime Minister Chifley made him deputy-chairman of the Commonwealth Housing Commission, which reported next year.

Appointed foundation chairman of the Town and Country Planning Board in 1946, Gawler formally retired from his practice. In that year the chair of architecture, for which he had consistently pressed, was established by the university, with an endowment from the Age. As a part-time member of faculty, Gawler was ineligible to apply for the chair; he tactfully resigned and remained on excellent terms with Brian Lewis, the new professor. In 1949-53 Gawler was a part-time member of the Victorian Housing Commission.

In 1951 he declined reappointment to the T.C.P.B. and made another trip abroad. He remained, however, a member of the Central Planning Authority, on which he had previously represented the board. A fellow (from 1922) of the R.V.I.A., he was awarded the Sir James Barrett medal in 1959 for his contribution to town and country planning. Gawler published his memoirs, A Roof Over My Head, in 1963. Survived by his wife, three daughters and two sons, he died on 6 September 1978 at Mitcham and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $215,235.

Select Bibliography

  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 27 Aug 1945, 22 Dec 1949, 23 Feb, 29 Mar 1951
  • Age (Melbourne), 5 Feb 1959
  • M. Lewis, The Development of Architectural Teaching in the University of Melbourne (typescript, 1970, Architecture Library, University of Melbourne).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Miles Lewis, 'Gawler, John Stevens (1885–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gawler-john-stevens-10285/text18195, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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