Refurbishment chance to restore features

The historic BNZ building in Princes St, Dunedin. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
The historic BNZ building in Princes St, Dunedin. Photo by Peter McIntosh.
I have offered some of this advice before - years ago - but as it seems auspicious, I'm going to offer it again.

It was good to read (ODT, 26.2.13) that a new owner, Van Aart Sycamore Lawyers, has bought the old BNZ building on Princes St and plans to refurbish and occupy it.

It is the second Bank of New Zealand building to occupy the corner site with Rattray St and construction started in 1879 to a design of W.

B. Armson's (1834-1883). Widely regarded as the architect's masterpiece, it is richly ornamented outside and in, characteristic of a time that saw decoration becoming ever more elaborate in reaction to the plainness of Georgian neo-classicism. Jonathan Mane-Wheoki described Armson's Bank of New Zealand as ''a lavish essay in Venetian high Renaissance, reminiscent of gentlemen's club buildings in Pall Mall, London''. It is, and, sadly, the architect didn't live to see it completed in 1883.

The building was truly magnificent at that time but over the years has suffered various indignities. There were balustrades with open baluster supports beneath the first-floor windows, which have foolishly been filled in.

There was a similar balustrade at the roof line that has been treated the same way. It wouldn't be too difficult to restore those features but other modifications would be harder to make good. The main banking chamber used to be panelled.

That was stripped out, in the 1960s I think, and a lower, false, ceiling installed. I told the people in the bank then this was a mistake and would be regretted. Lo and behold, a few decades later, the false ceiling was removed and there was the magnificent plaster coffering - still one of the best ceilings in the country.

The panelling, however, was gone for good and would be a challenge to replicate.

A grand staircase had also been removed and a very impressive red marble fireplace. That now graces Antrim House, the New Zealand Historic Places headquarters building in Wellington.

It's good it has been preserved but, clearly, it should be in Dunedin. Such building parts lose some of their significance when removed from their context.

The chimney stack to which it was fixed may have been bricked up and truncated. Even so, it may be possible to return it to its original location and if it can be, this should be done.

The building is three storeys high and made of stone. The basement floor is sunk, with only the tops of its windows visible at street level, about half calf-height on Princes St.

This is set into a stylobate, the technical term for the base supporting a row of pillars in an ancient Greek temple. Here it doesn't support pillars directly, but the pedestals, which do. Stylobate and pedestals are formed of blocks of Port Chalmers breccia.

The stylobate is rusticated, carved with channels between the blocks, and the pedestals are panelled. Between them are set-backs below each window, also empanelled with central rondels, decorated with lion head ornaments. This is very bold and very satisfying but there is a great deal more.

The structure above the stylobate and pedestals is mostly ashlar Oamaru limestone. There are some inset pillars of other polished stone but most is Oamaru limestone.

''Ashlar'' is the term for plain, dressed masonry, but there is rustication around the ground-floor windows, columns and another band of rosettes. There's a cornice and, above that, the blinded balustrades I mentioned before below the first-floor windows.

These also have columns and also arched window hoods and the columns have Corinthian capitals featuring forms of foliage. Above there are corbels supporting a deeper cornice and then the blinded balustrade I also mentioned earlier.

In fact, there's a good deal more than this, but I don't want to weary you with words. Descriptions of such buildings are necessarily lengthy just because they are so elaborate. A picture does the job more briefly. In fact, it was because there weren't photographs in Victorian newspapers that their descriptions of buildings are so long and erudite.

Many more people presumably knew what a stylobate was, and the difference between a Doric (plain) and a Corinthian (floriated) capital, in the 1880s than now because the newspaper descriptions are full of these terms.

Speaking for the new owners, Tony Sycamore is full of an admirable enthusiasm for the building. The structure is to be strengthened from 67% to 100% of the code and fire sprinkler systems installed throughout. This is good but it was also reported projected work ''included painting the outside of the building''.

It wasn't originally painted. This was done in the 1970s, I think. It hides the beautiful stonework and has caused de-lamination to the stylobate. It would be better to remove the paint and restore the stone to its glory.

Peter Entwisle is a Dunedin curator, historian and writer.

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