1894 as “undoubtedly the most handsome pile in the street”, stands at the corner of the traditional High Street (Tynte Street) and the present commercial hub of North Adelaide.
It is also important because the design seems to have been a collaboration between the architects Rowland Rees and Daniel Garlick, who never entered into partnership. It is similar in detail and execution to the Rees-designed Rising Sun Hotel in Kensington.
The Oxford Hotel was named at the time it was built in 1884. Previously, a hotel trading as the Princess Royal occupied the site. Its rebuilding in 1884 fits into that period when the city’s hotels were rebuilt or “clothed” in Italianate stuccoed trim. The Oxford Hotel was one of the most developed and original of its kind. It is unusual in not including the later typical verandah/balcony.
The history of the National Bank of Australasia dates from 1858 when it first submitted its prospectus simultaneously in Adelaide and Melbourne. It became the only Australian bank at the time simultaneously promoted in two colonies. The new office opened in South Australia on December 2, 1858. Business was expanded to Robe, Burra and Kapunda, prominent mining and transport centres, and in its first seven years of operation in the colony it opened 19 branches. (The Bank of Adelaide by comparison opened its first 19 branches over 20 years.)
South Australia in the 1870s grew proportionately faster than Victoria or New South Wales. By 1880 it had 50 branches and agencies of the National Bank compared with Victoria’s 40. In the following decade, the colony suffered economic reverses with the failure of harvests on which three-quarters of the National Bank’s business depended. Between 1884 and 1886, as thousands of farmers in the marginal wheat belt abandoned their land, the population of South Australia declined and insolvencies were widespread.
With the economic crash of the 1890s, depression in South Australia deepened. Even the National Bank briefly closed its doors but remained solvent, whereas many of its Victorian competitors did not. The National Bank weathered further economic vicissitudes during the 20th century and prospered, amalgamating in 1983 with the CBC to form the National Australia Bank Limited.
The National Bank’s premises in North Adelaide are identified with the period in which the Adelaide Board of the National Bank enjoyed a large degree of autonomy and control over the business of the bank and its expansion within South Australia. Geoffrey Blainey, in a history of the National Bank of Australasia, commented that its offices were invariably imposing: “In most towns, the finest buildings were the banks, and the manager often had a spacious two-storeyed house ... The desire to impress the customer and to hold his confidence explains the lavish architecture of the bank in the last century.”
The architecture of the bank’s O’Connell Street premises draws strongly on the Classical tradition. The combination of bank and manager’s residence is typical (for reasons of security), with prominent porticos elements. The string courses, bracketed cornice and stucco work are of a high standard and remarkably well preserved.
The centrepiece of the bank’s first floor is designed in the piano nobile tradition, with foliated capitals to pilasters and concealed jalousies (shutters). The building is well constructed of squared sandstone ashlar. The manager’s accommodation at the rear has a distinctly residential appearance with atypical cast-iron enriched verandah/balcony.
The bank interior has been sympathetically refurbished, with special attention to finishes and restoration. The hotel interior has suffered, although much of the plan has survived, as well as the gas light bracket above the corner entrance.