The addition in 1939-41 of the western section fronting Currie Street was a substantial expansion of the bank’s head office. A plaque on the King William Street frontage commemorates this site as the general vicinity of Captain Charles Sturt’s departure point for his exploration of the interior of Australia in 1844.
The Bank of Adelaide came into being in 1865. Men of high reputation and position appointed to the first board of directors included the Hon. Henry Ayers, Messrs T.G. Waterhouse, Robert Barr Smith, Thomas Magarey and G.P. Harris, with John Souttar as manager. When the bank’s first balance sheet was presented in January 1867, four branches had already been opened in Kapunda, Gawler, Port Adelaide and Goolwa. By 1885 it operated 19 branch offices in country centres that were either well established or in the process of development.
The extension of the northern agricultural areas and their initial success led to an era of unparalleled prosperity in the city. South Australia’s financial institutions rose on the crest of this wave, with buildings erected to house expanding centres of finance. The boom was short-lived, however. Harvests failed from the early 1880s, and this was followed by the collapse of the Commercial Bank of South Australia in 1886.
The general financial crash of 1893 led to a depression and more banks were forced to close their doors. However the Bank of Adelaide remained open. Its prestige was enhanced by this decision, and by the proclamation under the Trustee Act of 1893 that this was a bank in which trustees might deposit without financial liability to themselves. For many years it was the only South Australian bank to hold this privilege, reinforcing its role as a leading institution, particularly in the development of agricultural, pastoral and industrial pursuits in South Australia.
In 1878 the board of directors called for designs for a new building. One of the conditions of the design competition was that “the facades be boldly carried out in freestone and not dependent for effect on elaboration of detail”. In March 1878 Edmund W. Wright’s design won. The drawings are signed by Wright but it appears that the firm of Wright and Reed actually carried out the work. The builders were Brown and Thompson.
The South Australian Register of January 2, 1880, described the two-storey building as “exceedingly plain compared to the Bank of South Australia finished last year” (which became Edmund Wright House) and costing less than half the money (£26,000 instead of £60,000), and it was claimed that some preferred it to the richly ornamented bank lower down King William Street. The effect of the different coloured stones were admired, the white stone dressings relieving the darker stone of the main building. Both kinds of stone were Sydney freestone.
The design was Italian, “the Doric order being adopted in the ornamentation ... with massive columns coupled with rusticated bands. The windows are circular headed, with moulded archivolts, supported on tuscan columns”. The two storeys were divided by a Doric cornice enriched with triglyphs. The principal entrance was on the eastern front through a massive doorway “in rustic and vermiculated masonry, and with coupled Doric columns on each side supported on a rock base”.
The building was finished towards the end of 1880 and the first meeting of shareholders was held there in 1882. It was unchanged until 1939, when work on the western section began under the supervision of architects McMichael and Harris. The style of the original building was still highly regarded since the extension to the Currie Street frontage copied faithfully the design of the original, although not the quality of the materials. The contrast of light and dark sandstone once so admired was lost. The whole building, including the original section, was rendered and painted at this time, probably due to the difficulty of matching the materials of the new section with the old. The extension was completed in 1941. The interior has been completely remodelled and the ground-floor window frames altered.
Since then the building has not been altered noticeably. It is still architecturally impressive, due mainly to the interplay of light and shade produced by the textures on its modelled face.