It’s seems rather odd when walking along Collins Street, Melbourne’s swanky avenue lined with boutique shops, restaurants, historic churches, some of Australia’s tallest buildings and its banking center. For such a commercial and financial avenue, one wouldn’t expect to find the city’s best examples of Victorian-era architecture. It seems that the 19th-century captains of finance were in the habit of erecting and working in grand, ornate Gothic Revival buildings. There seems to have been no expense spared.
Included among these are the former English, Scottish and Australian (ES&A) Bank building and the former Stock Exchange. Though both are classified as Neo-Gothic, one is restrained and stately, the other almost flamboyant, perfectly at home along the canals of Venice. They are an odd couple. At the time of their construction, both buildings were not internally connected. That didn’t happen until 1922 when the conjoined structures became known together as the Gothic Bank.
While walking in the rain along Collins Street, we came across the Gothic Bank at Queen Street. Not inclined to admire the exteriors in this weather, we went inside to see the famed interior designs. The space previously occupied by ES&A Bank is now an ANZ branch, snug up against and connected to its imposing (and decidedly post-modern, sky-scraping) World Headquarters.
Walking into the bank lobby was quite a surprise. I’d never seen a bank interior like this one. It has to be one of the most ornate banking chambers in the world. The columns, capitals, arches and ceiling are richly detailed and gilded, like entering a Venetian palace.
From there, we made our way to the Stock Exchange building through doors along the lobby’s north wall. The former trading floor is now called the ‘Cathedral Room’ for obvious reasons. In fact, from Day One, the exchange became known as the Cathedral of Commerce, a reference to its clearly Gothic architectural elements: granite columns mounted by decorated capitals, soaring pointed arches and elaborate groin design. Unlike the adjoining bank interior, the off-white and gray colors are more suited to an ecclesiastical setting except that this hall was witness to financial trading in days past.
ANZ World Headquarters is situated next door and north of the ES&A building. The indoor passageway wouldn’t be noteworthy if it weren’t for the glass atria in between that are bordered by colorful post-modern columns. Those in the south atrium are made of smooth, blue-green marble topped by modern telescoping capitals. The north atrium reaches higher into a soaring space that repeats the column design of its southern neighbor on the bottom but adds fluted, light turquoise columns on top, its color chosen presumably so as not to appear overbearing. The effect is startling and imaginative. The atrium has the appearance of a courtyard, on one side lined with Gothic-inspired arched windows overlooking it.
We had earlier in the day visited the State Library of Victoria whose reading room is topped by a massive dome modeled after the ones in the U.S. Library of Congress and the British Museum.
Melbourne has many architectural wonders, thanks to preservationists who saw the value of retaining heritage buildings. We only saw a small fraction. If your interest turns occasionally to architecture, you’d do yourself a favor by spending time among Melbourne’s many masterpieces.