The Past

The former Banking Chamber & Vestibule of the Commercial Bank of Australia Ltd. The 333 Collins Street complex was completed in 1990, but within this complex stands a building that was constructed over 100 years before, during the land boom of the 1890’s. That building is the former Banking Chamber and entrance vestibule of the Commercial Bank of Australia. These two spaces form the major entrance and foyer to the 333 Collins Street Complex. They were once the focal point of the Head Office of the Commercial Bank of Australia Ltd.

History

The Bank was established in 1866 and from that date the Bank’s head office was located on this site. The 1880’s were prosperous years for the Commercial Bank. Under the General Manager, Henry Gyles Turner, the Bank’s deposit stock increased from 2 Million pounds in 1882 to nearly 12 million pounds in 1892 and it became the largest of the Associated Banks in Victoria.In 1889, on the wave of this prosperity, a direct result of Australia’s land and stock boom of the 1880’s, the bank initiated a design competition for it’s new head office. First prize was awarded jointly to Lloyd Tayler and Alfred Dunn, who were subsequently appointed as architects for the new building. The foundation stone was laid in 1st July 1891 by the then Chairman, Thomas Moubray. The contractor was James Moore of City Road, South Melbourne. The Bank’s move into it’s new premises on 8 July 1893 coincided with the darkest period in it’s history. This period began with the crash in land and stock prices of 1891. The Bank had lent heavily to speculators and speculative businesses, to the degree that of their 12 million pound assets, only 2 million pounds were realisable. With this situation in mind, the Bank began to call in it’s main economy. Many previously respectable businesses and individuals went into liquidation as a consequence. Worse still, certain of the more speculative banks began to suspend payments resulting in a general rush by depositors to withdraw their funds from all the major Banks. The Commercial Bank was in a sad situation. It’s debtors were in liquidation and unable to pay and it’s creditors were withdrawing funds. The Directors took drastic measures. On 5 April 1893, they suspended payments and persuaded shareholders and depositors to a reconstruction scheme whereby depositors’ funds were converted into preference shares.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day the Bank was 12 million pounds in debt and it took a further reconstruction in 1896 and thirty years of very careful operation before this debt was paid. In 1981 the Commercial Bank of Australia and the Bank of New South Wales merged to become Westpac Banking Corporation. In 1987 the former Head Office site was sold to Becton Corporation who incorporated the Banking Chamber and vestibule into the present building. The photograph on the next page shows the Banking Chamber soon after completion. On the reverse of the original of this photograph is handwritten “Mr E A Parry, now dead, did plastering and was owner of photograph, banked at Carlton”. Presumably it is Mr Parry who gazes fixedly at the camera from the counter at the far end of the Chamber. The photograph provides an excellent record of the appearance of the Banking Chamber soon after completion. Several details shown in the photograph still survive, including the
mosaic floor and clock.

Over time distinctive blackwood and walnut counters and screens were amended and gradually removed. Remnants of these fittings can still be viewed in the initial part of the chamber just inside the main vestibule. The polished brass swinging grilles were added to the counters in the early part of the twentieth century. From a banking transaction point of view, the Banking Chamber was divided into two sections: the Ledger Section and the Teller’s Section. The Ledger Section was concealed from view behind the panelled screen on the left hand side as shown in the photograph. Customers presenting a cheque to be cashed for instance would first queue for service at the Ledger Section where the clerk would receive the cheque through one of the panels in the screen. The clerk would mark the cheque certifying the amount shown and the correct signature. The Customer could then present the cheque to a teller, located on the right hand side of the photograph behind the counter. The teller would retain the cheque and issue the necessary notes and coin. Deposits could be made at a Receiving teller. Queuing obviously involved some amount of time in this process and the mosaic floor is worn in those areas where customers were required to wait for service. The Branch Manager’s office and Accounts Sections were located beyond the Chamber through the far archway. As well as functioning as a Branch and Head Office for the Commercial Bank of Australia, the building accommodated the ChequeClearing House for all banks operating in Victoria. The Clearing House was located at the rear of the site, however, it enjoyed independent access from the Collins Street vestibule via a partly submerged corridor. The corridor traversed the Banking Chamber along the east wall (behind the Ledger screen) and is no longer in its original form, however the entrance from the vestibule survives. The photograph shows the Banking Chamber in its unpainted form. Good building practice requires that plastered surfaces like those in the Chamber must be left unpainted until the plaster is fully dry. The drying process can take several months. Presumably the Chamber was painted in 1894. The present colour scheme of the Chamber replicates this initial scheme and is based on extensive paint sampling of all of the internal surfaces.

Architecture

Lloyd Tayler and Alfred Dunn are both distinguished among Australia’s Victorian era architects. Lloyd Tayler had previously designed the Head Office for the National Bank (also on Collins Street) and Parliament House, Adelaide. Alfred Dunn, very much Tayler’s junior, had recently competed the great Wesleyan Church in Hawthorn. Tayler should in reality be regarded as the principal recipient of the first prize in the Head Office design competition as the concept of the domed Banking Chamber forming the centerpiece to the new bank stems from his design. With great architectural rhetoric, Tayler justified his design as providing the Bank with a maximum of natural light and ventilation in its central activity area, nevertheless, the Domed Chamber and its vaulted entrance vestibule would have certainly appealed to the Bank’s Directors, providing as it did the largest and grandest bank in Melbourne. It is said that Tayler had nurtured the idea of a vast domed banking Chamber for years, but had never had the opportunity to carry this idea into execution. Certainly Tayler’s competition entry demonstrates a very resolved design taking its precedents from the architecture of the Italian Baroque and Islam, most notably the Church of San Lorenzo in Turin by Guarino Guarini (1668-87) and the Great Mosque at Cordoba in Spain. The intersecting system of ribs continuously crossing the space and forming the dome vault, provide an element of movement in the design of the Chamber. Such movement is rare in Victorian classicism which is usually dependent on the more static spaces of Renaissance and Roman architecture. This movement is further enhanced by the plastic nature of the space itself as it moves “beyond” to ancillary spaces to the north and south and ascends from a square space to an octagon, a spherical peak and finally the lantern, which is almost another space in itself. The Bank’s functional requirements played a critical role in the planning of the Banking Chamber. Critical among these requirements was the need for good natural lighting and ventilation, given the constraint of the Chamber being surrounded on all sides by taller structures. Tayler solved this problem by a glass lantern above the dome oculus and a series of clerestory windows. The effect was to bathe the Chamber in light. In addition, the glazed panels of the lantern were designed to open, thereby allowing a through draft of air to the chamber.