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History

05 Aug 2020

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BANKING on it in Southbank!

By Robin Grow - President, Australian Art Deco & Modernism Society

One of the characteristics of today’s Southbank is the adaptive re-use of some buildings from previous eras and incorporation into multi-level apartment blocks.

The result can range from bizarre to tasteful, depending on the opinion of the observer, and is often controversial, but at least some of the previous fabric has been retained.

One example of this process is the treatment provided to the former Bank of NSW (now Westpac) on the corner of City Rd and Clarke St. Constructed in 1932, the bank was designed by the firm of Godfrey and Spowers, prominent in the architecture of Melbourne in the interwar era. The firm generally produced conservative designs, but this elegant small bank was more adventurous, combining Art Deco flourishes, with Aztec and Egyptian influences in its applied decoration, such as rendered patterning above each window (steel-framed on the ground floor, of course, to discourage robbery attempts).

The two-storeyed bank was located on a wedge-shaped block and featured a bevelled corner and the front door was entered through a bold arch, surrounded by a stylish with bas-relief of chevron-patterned decoration.

Suburban banks preferred to locate branches on corner sites to provide greater flexibility of internal arrangements, particularly providing increased public space (with clear views for the manager) and an uninterrupted view of the front doors and the strongroom door from the tellers’ boxes. The 1930s was a very violent era in Melbourne, with numerous armed robberies of banks, so security was always a major concern.

It served the local business community for many years (remembering that most banking transactions relied on customers visiting the bank premises) and was a key commercial building (among generally small industrial concerns) in the Southbank area, as the other major banks were located in the Clarendon St shopping strip. It was well-maintained by the bank until they moved out after the merger with Westpac in 1982 and has been occupied for many years by a charming little café called a Treat of France, which retains the original ceiling decorations from its time as a bank.

It was recognised as individually significant and made an important contribution to the City Rd heritage precinct. However, its location on a corner of City Rd made the site an attractive target for property developers, who integrated it into a large development.

Today, with its original bank name restored, it anchors the 22-storey Bank Apartments building (with 350 apartments), popular due to its proximity to Clarendon St shops, arts venues, the Casino and the South Melbourne Market •

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