Banks were once grand city buildings, their splendid halls and ornate architecture attesting to their wealth. But today much banking is done online and these buildings are more likely to house bars or restaurants. Or occasionally shopping centres. Like Wellington’s Old Bank Arcade, a smart mall with an interesting history and an unusual animated clock.
History of the Old Bank Arcade
Going in to the Old Bank Arcade is like walking into history. Built as the headquarters of the Bank of New Zealand in 1901, it must have been one of the most important buildings in the city. For many years the bank’s chairman was Harold Beauchamp, an influential Wellington man now better known as the father of Katherine Mansfield, one of New Zealand’s most famous authors.
The bank later fell into disuse and lay empty for some time. It was during its redevelopment as a shopping centre in the 1990s that an earlier piece of history came to light. The bank had been built on Lambton Quay, once a beach area but now reclaimed land. Beneath its foundations the builders found the remains of a three-masted sailing ship, Plimmers Ark. This had belonged to John Plimmer, an early settler who arrived with his family in 1841, and later became known as the “Father of Wellington”. Today you can see the remains of his ship in the vaults of the Old Bank Arcade.
The Old Bank Arcade Today
Todaytthe Old Bank Arcade is a modern arcade with stylish shops and cafés. The basic structure of the bank has been retained, so that you can marvel at the Banking Chamber, once described as “one of the largest of its kind in the colonies”. Look out for original architectural details including mosaic floors, intricate plasterwork ceilings and old timberwork.
A highlight of any visit to the Old Bank Arcade is the animated clock on the upper level. As it strikes the hour music begins to play and the clock opens up, revealing four different tableaux. The clock rotates slowly and the scenes come to life as a voice narrates the history of the site, from the arrival of Plimmers Ark to the building of the bank, and to the present day.
The Old Bank Arcade seems to have come a long way from its origins. Yet among the boutiques and coffee shops I spotted the Gold Exchange, where customers can buy and sell gold. A tenuous link to the past perhaps, but a reminder of the proud institution that once stood here.