The building has therefore been operated as a bank by three of the most important banking institutions in Australian history.
The Bank of South Australia began as a department of the South Australian Company, which had been set up in London in 1835. Potential migrants to the proposed colony of South Australia were encouraged to deposit funds in London in exchange for bills from the planned bank in Adelaide.
In the colony, the bank soon became separate from the South Australian Company as its assets were financing interests of the company that were often in commercial competition with its own customers (the company dealt extensively in land and cattle). Legal separation became effective from 1841 but the bank did not receive its royal charter until 1847.
In 1866 the Bank of South Australia secured a better site for its Adelaide headquarters on King William Street for £10,000. However it was not until 1875 that a contract was let for constructing the building. Two years later its North Terrace premises were sold for £18,000 and the bank moved in June 1878 to what the local board described as “a handsome building superior for beauty and convenience to any edifice of a similar character in the southern hemisphere”.
Edmund Wright of Adelaide and Lloyd Tayler won the design competition, and the builders were Brown and Thompson of Adelaide. The cost, about £63,000, was almost equally divided between the structure and its elaborate interiors, fixtures, fittings and additional materials, many of which came from England.
Ironically the bank declined from the late 1870s into the 1880s. A combination of bad management, increased competition, and the decision in March 1887 to enter Melbourne before Victoria’s catastrophic economic collapse led to a sorry end. In April 1892, the Union Bank of Australia took possession of the business and in 1899 the Bank of South Australia was formally dissolved.
The sculptor John Dowie commented in Preserving our Heritage (Best, D., Preserving our Heritage, 1971) that Edmund Wright House, the former Bank of South Australia building, was remarkable as a city building that is three dimensional and not just a facade: “Stately and sumptuous, each side relates fully to the next, and all are finely proportioned and detailed ... The skill and craftsmanship that have gone into this little palace are almost unimaginable today. Every stone is hand worked, the lavishly used columns are exquisitely proportioned, the entasis subtle and the fluting perfect ... The building is of course irreplaceable ... It is the product of a philosophy and tradition which were responsible for the finest ornaments of the great cities, a tradition now dead. It is the equivalent to us of a work by Palladio or Wren, and we can assume that never again will such things be made here.”
Although Lloyd Tayler probably designed the building, Wright was responsible for superintending its construction. Trained in London as a civil engineer and architect, he was familiar with French architecture and had worked in Canada. He came to Adelaide in 1850 and worked in partnership E.J. Woods, as well as on his own account. He also worked for the government, including for a period as architect-in-chief. He served on the Adelaide City Council as alderman in 1857 and mayor in 1859. He died in 1888.
In 1971 the owners of the building, Mainline Investments, proposed to replace the old bank building with a 19-storey office block. The ensuing public campaign to save it resulted in its public purchase and restoration, and aroused interest generally in saving some of the city’s major historical buildings from demolition. Renamed Edmund Wright House, it was bought by the Minister of Works in November 1971 for $750,000. It has since been used as public offices for the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages, with the banking chamber accommodating meetings and musical recitals. It currently hosts the Migrant Resource Centre.