Spirit of Progress - Journal of Art Deco Modernism Society Inc
Sanger Street Facade of CIRCA 1936; photo by Urban List Melbourne
Main streets of many towns in rural Australia were dominated by two types of businesses - pubs and banks, both of critical importance to the residents. Many examples of both types were constructed (or re-modelled) in the interwar years, often designed in the latest (Art Deco) styles and finished with materials and features that distinguish them from surrounding commercial buildings. The banks included National, NSW, Commonwealth, CBC Sydney, ESA, Commercial Bank –and in NSW, the Rural Bank. Some remain in operation as banks but others have been re-purposed for other commercial purposes, not surprising as they were solidly-built and often designed by prominent architects.
The Rural Bank was established in 1932 with a charter of supporting farmers and a slogan that became famous – “we do more for you personally”. Over the next few years the bank opened many branches as part of their policy of erecting new branch premises in important centres where the bank had extensive operations.
A similar design was used for many Rural Bank branches in towns such as Murwillumbah, Albury, and many more. Located on the Murray River in the southern area of NSW, Corowa gained a branch in 1936 in Sanger Street, in the middle of town – a stylish exercise in Art Deco design. It was one of the flashest buildings in a town already famous as the birth place of Federation in 1900. The town continued to develop in the 1930s, with many fine examples of Art Deco styling, financed by the Rural Bank, which also advanced funds (up to 100 guineas) for the purchase of pure bred bulls.
Who designed the bank? Newspaper reports tell us that plans were being prepared by staff of architects specially engaged by the banking authority, probably the firm of Ross and Rowe from Sydney, who were responsible for the head office of the Bank in Sydney in 1934 and branches at Grafton and Molog in 1930. The two-storey building was faced in cherry red brick, from Sydney, with a cream cement rendered base and surrounds to the main entrance, and the appearance of a flat roof. It was adorned with the coat of arms of the Bank, featuring a Lion and a Kangaroo, which also featured prominently on the Bank’s Head Office in Martin Place, Sydney, unfortunately demolished in the mid-80’s. As was the norm in those days, it was not air-conditioned, with staff relying on natural cross-ventilation on hot days (meaning that they opened the windows!) and a large electric fan to circulate the air. The ceilings consisted of Wunderlich special steel stamped panels, described as “a very pleasing design and nicely finished in a flat white color.” The ground floor contained an extensive banking chamber, interviewing rooms for the manager and accountant, and a strong room. The building not only served for banking purposes but also provided accommodation for the manager and his family (always men in those days). Whilst the bank occupied most of the premises, commercial tenants were also present, such as Kevin Hines Stock and Station Agents and the notorious dentist, Dr Doug Leven. His nickname was “One Tug Doug’ and the mention of his name still sends shivers down the spines of older Corowa residents who recall his treatments with horror. Sadly, many of us have recollections of similar types of dentists from our childhood. Thank goodness times have changed.
In 1981 the name of the bank was changed to the State Savings Bank of NSW and its mandate changed to that of a standard commercial bank. It was absorbed into the Commonwealth Bank of Australia in 2000 and the Corowa branch ceased trading, after which it was sold and occupied by a number of commercial tenants.
Three years ago, the former bank began an exciting new journey as Circa 1936, the brainchild of ADMS member Kevin Yaxley and his wife and business partner Ririn. They had extensive experience in hotel management and wanted to establish a business that combined a small number of luxury suites, a day-spa and which retailed a range of specialty products, including lotions, teas, salts, honey, drinking chocolate – all made to their own requirements, using local ingredients. They weren’t necessarily looking for a Deco building, but couldn’t resist the former bank and have fallen in love with the style whilst undertaking their journey, which started with camping out in the building whilst they determined the design.
The bank was completely re-modelled. They managed to retain many features from its former life – the Wunderlich pressed-metal ceiling in geometric style, doors, internal windows, a fireplace and, not surprisingly, a vault that now serves as a wine-cellar. Wooden floors were taken up, treated and returned but were japanned in black, providing a stark (but pleasing) contrast with the white walls. A front cocktail bar was created from left-over ceiling panels and glass panels, a dining area was furnished with Le Corbusier furniture and stylish tables of petrified wood from Indonesia and a white 1937 piano, and a nook near the back door was created with vertical glass panels, fronted by a large vintage radio. The front door was re-modelled, necessary after the building façade had been compromised by the bank by the installation of ATM machines. The three suites feature massive bathrooms, large beds, stained-glass windows in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright, a large free-standing bath and everything necessary for a luxurious stay. We stayed in the West Suite, looking out over the main street – however it is quiet, and has the benefit of a west-facing balcony where we enjoyed a drink as the sun went down before venturing to the dining area for some tapas and a glass of wine. One of the joys of Circa 1936 is discovering a number of small collections displayed, such as hand-mirrors, light shades, ladies’ hats and Javanese hair pins. There is also a display of copper-plated plough discs that reference the agricultural history of the town.
Today Kevin and Ririn, and their small team, have achieved many of their aims, but not without a huge amount of work as they fastidiously refurbished the building to meet their needs. Naturally they are delighted when guests pass on compliments about the successful and stylish restoration. They are currently planning an extension to the rear of the property.
Circa 1936 is reached by an easy 3-hour drive from Melbourne. It is close to the delights of the Rutherglen vineyard district and the many golfing resorts along the Murray. So if you are looking for some peace and quiet in an elegant space with a Deco heritage, why not head off to Circa 1936 and let them pamper you.
Interview with Kevin Yaxley
Sydney Morning Herald, 2 February 1937
Writer is the president of Art Deco and Modern Society of Australia