This site is dedicated to the life and work of Edwin Hubert Henderson, architect (1885-1939). Henderson was Chief Architect of the Commonwealth of Australia from 1929-1939.
The Commonwealth Bank located on the corner of Martin Place and Pitt Street Sydney is best known as the basis for the iconic tin money box issued by the bank to generations of school students and other savers. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the money box. It is a chance to reflect on this building, and the role of Chief Commonwealth Architect, EH Henderson, in its development.
A Controversial Start
Soon after the Commonwealth Bank was set up by legislation, Prime Minister Andrew Fisher appointed the first governor of the Bank, Denison Miller. Miller was to run the bank from 1912 to his death in 1923. A priority for the new Governor was a suitably grand headquarters for the new bank. In a controversial move, he appointed his cousin, John Kirkpatrick, as the bank architect.
Kirkpatrick would go on to make a small fortune from Commonwealth Bank work, much to the chagrin of other architects in New South Wales. Kirkpatrick had a stellar record of winning architectural competitions, though the famous architect Sir John Sulman charged that this was only because of systematic corruption of judges. Kirkpatrick was close to Sir William Lyne, a Minister for Public Works and later Premier in colonial New South Wales, and then a Minister in the new Federal Government. It has been suggested that
‘a good, but not exceptionally gifted architect, Kirkpatrick owed his success, extending over forty years and involving several hundred buildings, more to outstanding drive and political connexions than to creative skill”Stephen Malone, ‘Kirkpatrick, John (1856–1923)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kirkpatrick-john-6974/text12117, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 20 November 2021.
Kirkpatrick was appointed by Lyne to chair a royal commission to determine the location of the capital of the new Federation. Kirkpatrick chose his home town Albury, but of course this decision did not stand.
Denison set his sights on the foremost commercial site in Sydney – the corner of Pitt Street and Martin Place and persuaded the Minister for Home Affairs, King O’Malley, to compulsorily acquire the site for £81,481. A foundation stone was laid by Fisher and Miller on 14 May 1913. Miller emphasised that this building would be based on the latest designs typical of commercial skyscrapers in New York. It would be in a classical Greek style and reach the maximum height allowed in the city – 150 feet. It would be a “monument to the Commonwealth of Australia” (Kerr p5).
The Original Bank
Kirkpatrick’s design was grand in what became known as the Commercial Palazzo style. A steel framed, ten story building with a banking chamber with a 26 foot high ceiling, clothed in Australian marble, from the ceilings to the counters. The first two stories would be clad in polished grey tracyte and the rest in Sydney Sandstone. Steel and bronze was to be extensively used from the window sand doors to the picture rails.
With the grand design went a grand price tag. Kirkpatrick assured Miller the building could be built of £150,000 but the tenders all came in above that. Despite the need to cut costs, Miller wanted as much of the marble banking chamber retained as possible. Eventually a price of £164,000 was agreed, though there would be many variations thereafter.
The coat of arms above the main entrance was designed and sculpted in beaten copper by William Macintosh. Electric clocks were installed, and the main clock in the banking chamber was inscribed with the words “The noiseless foot of time steals swiftly by”. Indeed.
Perhaps given the time imperative, the building was fitted with a pneumatic tube system to facilitate the rapid movement of bank documents between the main banking chamber and other areas of the bank. Apparently documents routinely got stuck in the tubes with staff having to resort to long pieces of wood to dislodge them.
The building was not only the home of the bank, but the main Commonwealth office building in Sydney. The seventh floor contained to the Sydney offices of the Governor-General and the Prime Minister, the eight floor was for Federal members of Parliament and the ninth floor was a large hall for receptions and a staff dining area. It was in this area that the Governor-General’s dinner for the visiting Prince of Wales was held in 1920. The Governor’s suite was located on the second floor. Interestingly, Kirkpatrick had his own architectural offices on level three.
The building was officially opened in August 1916 by the Governor-General and Prime Minister Billy Hughes.
The Money Box
In June 1922, Miller approved the design for the famous tin money box featuring the Martin Street headquarters of the bank as the model. But why this bank?
The building had developed a place in the public mind during the First World War. The Martin Place entrance was the location of patriotic rallies during the war to raise funds for the war. Indeed, one of the speakers in 1918 spoke from on top of a tank. Because the Prime Minister’s office was located in the building, Billy Hughes would review troops would review passing parades of troops from the front of the building. By 1921, Miller was using a model of the Bank touring around the country to promote loans in support of soldier settlement schemes.
Interestingly there are two models of the money box. The other is the 1931 issued “pink money box” which featured the State Savings Bank building at 48 Martin Place acquired by the Bank. (Sydney Morning Herald “A telling tale of two money boxes” 26 September 2012 https://www.smh.com.au/national/nsw/a-telling-tale-of-two-tin-moneyboxes-20120925-26jfg.html
Henderson’s Bank 1929-1933
In 1929, the Bank decided to expand its head office. In 1917 and 1919 it had bought buildings adjacent to the head office, meaning that it now owned the entire frontage along Pitt Street from Martin Place to Rowe Street. The completed building would increase the area from 10,000 to 28,000 square feet.
The Commonwealth Department of Works was commissioned to undertake the extension, and Henderson, as Chief Architect, would be the designer. He had in 1929 undertaken a world trip to study bank architecture so was well placed to ensure the design reflected international trends.
Though the extension would dramatically increase the size of the building , Henderson was determined to maintain the design of Kirkpatrick on the exterior of the building. Building magazine (April 12, 1933) devoted a long article to the design and commented:
Unlike a number of architects who seek to weave their own personality into their extensions by making them at variance with the existing work, the designer here has come through with credit to himself. He has subjected personal aggrandizement, and make the extension conform to the existing design, so that a homogenous whole would result. He has, however, reserved his own impress for the interior, particularly of the detailing, which are the embodiment of elegance and refinement.Building p39
Henderson sought to:
“introduce a modern note which would not clash with the atmosphere created by the old building; modern in the sense that conventional forms are used (not necessarily geometrical), and in that the values of lines, as opposed to the gradation of light and shade, is emphasised. Thus, notwithstanding the elaboration of ornament, the whole motif is read at a glance.Building p39
The Pitt Street frontage was nearly tripled. The design adopted by Henderson was to create symmetry through three vertical elements – the original bank façade to be repeated with a new central component dominated by a large portico at the height of the ground and first floors. This was necessary to accommodate the possibility that a federal reserve bank may be established and would need its own entrance.
The main entrance foyer was dominated by a large, ornate screen made of steel but covered with decorative bronze relief. This use of bronze is perhaps the signature touch of the internal design of the building. The entrance had two massive steel doors that, when the Bank closed, lifted hydraulically from the ground.
The interior was in the Art Deco style with the banking chamber being the highlight. It was the largest in the southern hemisphere (Sydney Morning Herald 11 October 1932). A large skylight (from Wunderlich Ltd) illuminated the chamber. Together with the many windows, the chamber was well lit. White and gold marble from Mudgee was used throughout the chamber (including even the drinking fountains) The tellers’ counters were of marble with glass screens.
The white colour palette of the chamber, including the marble, attracted comment from Building magazine in its review:
Whilst this chamber must rank among the finest in Australia, because of its massive and excellent proportions, and the beauty of its detailing, there are one or two features in which we feel that improvement could have been effected with considerable benefit to the scheme as a whole. We refer first of all to the extreme whiteness of the chamber, and secondly to the opportunity lost in not adopting some other mediums than white plaster, which, no doubt, was intended to be in keeping with the all-white colour scheme for the lamp shades.
The original design was intended to be carried out in bronze, which would have added considerable life to the ceiling and brought relief to the monotony of the white which greets us at present. Having a knowledge of the architect’s ideas regarding colour, as well as the appropriateness of materials to their design, we hazard a guess that, like many an architect in private practice, his intentions miscarried.
Some idea of what the introduction of a little colour would have meant in emphasising the beautiful detailing and adding interest can be gathered from the spare touches of cream that have bene introduced into the beautiful coffered ceiling.
We offer this criticism in the hope that it may stimulate some action to effect the necessary improvement. It is not too late yet for the application of colour to the ceiling. These are the only features of the building about which one might take exception. This, indeed, is placing the building very high among architectural works.Building pp41-42
Whilst Henderson may have not been able to use bronze on the ceiling, he used it extensively throughout the rest of the building. The quality of the bronze work can be seen in the below two period photographs of the stairs and main lifts. It was used on walls to provide decoration and in all the main fittings. Building’s review commented that “the distinctive quality of the bronze work, its perfection of line and exquisite effects obtained by the deeply enriched cast relief in relation to the flat surfaces has set a standard reached in few buildings in Australia.” (p42).
The executive offices were still located on the second floor of the building, and apparently the executive washroom was extremely impressive. It is not clear whether the pneumatic tube system was upgraded during the extension. The other interesting feature was a massive lift was installed to take an armoured car from street level down to the basement of the bank to allow secure transfer of currency and bullion.
Today the bank building still stands in Martin Place as impressive as ever. With the 100th anniversary of the money box it is worth reflecting on the quality of the original building – and of the extension carried out by Henderson.
Elephant castle : an investigation of the significance of the head office building of the Commonwealth Banking Corporation of Australia. James Semple Kerr. 1989. Sydney. National Trust of Australia.