Sydney Architecture Images- Galleries and Notes.
THE COMMERCIAL PALAZZO Richard Apperly
|ITS ORIGINS OVERSEAS AND SOME EXAMPLES IN NEW SOUTH WALES IN THE EARLY TWENTIETH CENTURY|
Most accounts of Western architecture in the first half of the twentieth
century have concentrated on European functionalism and expressionism.
Le Corbusier, Gropius and Mies van der Rohe have claimed the
limelight, although the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright has also been acknowledged.
In this rather restricted context, relatively few office
buildings of the period 1900 to 1940 have featured in the literature, no
doubt because many conservative businessmen tended to shy away from
radical - some said Bolshevik - brands of modern architecture.
Wright's Larkin Building, Mies's early glass-wrapped towers and Le
Corbusier's heroic Algiers block have been featured often enough, although
the two last-named were unexecuted projects. Except for Howe
& Lescaze's PSFS Building in Philadelphia, American skyscrapers of
the era were for a long time regarded somewhat condescendingly as
technical triumphs but aesthetic jokes - at least until a decade or so ago
when Art Deco architecture became acceptably chic. Further down the
scale, the masonry-clad, classically-styled office buildings which were
the norm in many cities of the world up to the end of the 1930s have
seldom had their existence recognized. This paper puts a word in for
these often worthy buildings which, in their modified classical garb,
showed little inclination to Louis Sullivan's exhortation to be 'comely in
|The Problem of the Tall Building|
As a consequence of the Industrial Revolution, the growth of business oriented
city centres led to a steady rise of property values. Merchants,
bankers, insurers, hoteliers and other profit-seekers demanded conveniently
located, well-lit spaces in which to carry out their operations.
Expensive building sites generated a desire to build tall to obtain the
greatest possible amount of income earning floor space and thus yield a
satisfactory return on investment. In the closing decades of the nineteenth
century this drive for height was nowhere more insistent than in
America, and in America nowhere stronger than in Chicago, a city
faced with the urgent need to rebuild its central business district after a
great part of it had been destroyed by fire in 1871. Confident, pragmatic
Chicago architects and engineers brought together and perfected
the ways and means for making the high-rise office building feasible:
the structural frame of iron or steel, the electric elevator and techniques
for fireproofing structural metalwork by encasing it in terracotta.
The technical problems could he resolved and they were. The difficulty
was to decide what high-rise buildings should look like. In the past, the
facades of city buildings had usually been considerably wider than they
were high, and each storey had been treated as a horizontal strip of wall
penetrated by window or door openings, often with a string course
marking the floor or sill level. With only three or four storeys to
worry about, the designer could always use one of the classical orders
on each storey and superimpose them in the way the Romans had done
in the Colosseum - Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, Composite. But how
how did one design the facade of a building with six, ten or even twenty
storeys? Dividing it by entablatures or string courses into horizontal,
storey-height strips tended to make it look like a pile of books or a
multi-decker sandwich; combining three or four storeys at a time into
'elements' from which a 'composition' could be made was arbitrary and
looked it (Fig 1).
Chicagoan rationality provided some useful pointers. First, logic demanded
that full advantage should be taken of the fact that the structural
frame had superseded the load-bearing wall. The facade could now be
a skeletal grid of fire-proofed columns and beams, and the big, rectangular
voids between the framing members could simply be filled in
with large windows and non-load-bearing spandrels. The possibility
that 'architecture' could be achieved simply by expressing what had to
be there anyway suggested a new basis for the design of facades. Secondly,
Louis Sullivan, doyen of Chicago architects during the early
skyscraper era, wrote perceptively in 1896 of 'The Tall Office Building
Artistically Reconsidered.' Essentially, his prescription was for a tripartite
facade, approximating the base, shaft and capital of a classical
column. The ground and first floors, he said, should be given an impressive,
large-scale treatment befitting their important occupancies and
the close relationship of these spaces to the life of the street outside.
Then there should be an indefinite number of storeys of standardized,
repetitive offices treated like a honeycomb. Sullivan advised the designer
of these storeys to 'make them look all alike, because they are all
alike.' At the top of the building there should be an 'attic' full of tanks,
pipes and lift machinery, the aesthetic purpose of which was to show
'that the series of office tiers has come definitely to an end.'3 With the
benefit of hindsight all this may sound obvious enough, but Sullivan's
analysis was both timely and helpful. His buildings did not always illustrate
the principles he espoused in his writings, but it cannot be denied
that the upper floors of the Carson, Pirie & Scott Store in Chicago were
a fine demonstration of the expressed structural frame (Fig 2), and that
the Prudential Building in Buffalo, NY, exemplified the tripartite facade
|Fig 1 The Fair Store (1890-91), Chicago, Illinois, by William Le Baron Jenney. The triple windows and their accompanying spandrels confidently express the framed structure, but the rusticated storey halfway up the facade indicates that the designer was unwilling to allow the 'reality' of the building to speak for itself.|
|Fig 2 The Carson , Pirie & Scott Store (1899-1904). Chicago, by Louis Sullivan.|
|Fig 3 Prudential (Guaranty) Building (1894), Buffalo, New York, by Louis Sullivan. The three zones of Sullivan's design are visible in the large open windows of the ground zone, the thin vertical elements of the office zone and the arches and curves of the terminating zone at the top of the building.|
|The Classical Alternative to the Chicago Solution|
The solution of an exposed structural frame infilled by a curtain wall
might have been the obvious answer, but not all tycoons wanted to pay
large sums of money for office buildings which expressed nothing more
than functionality. In the late nineteenth century, Americans knew that
they could handle the practicalities of modem life supremely well, but
they were becoming embarrassed by what they perceived as their lack
of cultural respectability. Europe might have been old and tired - but
it had enviable traditions. American millionaires might have had sufficient
hard cash at their disposal to buy and sell European royal families
several times over - but they had no portraits of their ancestors by
Rubens, Velasquez or van Dyke hanging on the walls of their pretentious
houses. Accordingly, Americans decided to buy respectability by
clothing manifestations of their naked wealth in the ancient classical orders
adorned with the swags, garlands and putty of European antiquity,
skilfully applied by American architects fresh from L'Ecole des Beaux-
Arts in Paris. The World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893
was a dichotomous display of good old American know-how coupled
with a massive cultural cringe. The centrepiece of the Exposition was
a great 'White City' built of wood and plaster, showing the Old World
what a complete environment in the European Renaissance style could
be like when built all at the one time by a well-organised team of Yankee
entrepreneurs, planners, architects, landscapers, artists and contractors.
For a decade or more before the Chicago Exposition, American architects
had been looking for suitable models for their corporate clients'
temples of commerce. In 1875 George B Post had designed the 70-
metre-high Westem Union Building in New York as a 'stretched' adaptation
of the Early French Renaissance style. Other architects had chosen
the dignified, sober and richly modulated facade of the Italian Renaissance palazzo
as the ideal urban building-type.
After all, what could be a better model for American commercial architecture than the
home of a cultured Florentine or Roman merchant banker? This was,
of course, a choice based on aesthetic and cultural considerations and it
had nothing to do with steel-framed construction, 'Chicago windows' or
other nineteenth century technical innovations. From this choice there
evolved what will now be called the Commercial Palazzo style. Essentially,
the style was created for 'elevator buildings' (i.e., structures of
more than four or five storeys which therefore needed a 'lift' for vertical
circulation of people and goods) by taking the three- to four storeyed
Italian palazzo facade and 'stretching' it vertically.
|Italian Renaissance Pallazi precedent|
|Palazzo Thiene, Vicenza||Palazzo Strozzi, Florence||Palazzo Medici, Florence|
|Farnese Palace, Rome||Palazzo Massimo, Rome||Chancellery Palace, Rome|
|Fig 4 Sun Fire Assurance Office (1841-2), London, by CR Cockerell (British Museum, London).||Fig 5 Royal Exchange Buildings (1842-44), London, by Edward I'Anson.||Royal Exchange Buildings interior|
|Fig 9 Travellers' Club (1829-32), London, Sir Charles Barry.||Reform Club (1837-41), London, Sir Charles Barry. The Reform Club in London viewed from Pall Mall, with the Travellers Club immediately to its left||Fig I0 Union Club (1883- 87, demolished), Bligh Street, Sydney, by William Wardell|
|Nineteenth Century New York precedent|
|Fig 7 Metropolitan Club (1891-94), New York, by McKim, Mead & White.||Fig 6 Henry Villard Houses (1882), New York, by McKim, Mead & White.||Fig 8 University Club (1896- 1900), New York, by McKim, Mend & White|
|Banco di Napoli, New York||FIRST PRECINCT, NYPD||Cartier’s , New York|
|Edwardian Baroque Architecture British Beaux Arts precedent|
|The War Office in Whitehall, London (built 1906).||General Post Office, Auckland, New Zealand||Sinclair Centre, Vancouver, Canada|
|Sources of the Commercial Palazzo Style|
The palazzo, in one classical guise or another, has been an influential
phenomenon ever since the Medici, the Strozzi, the Rucellai and other
rich, powerful families built their formidable townhouses in the sheets
of Florence. When nineteenth-century capitalists needed impressive
premises in which to conduct their business, the palazzo was always
likely to provide a basis for the design. For instance, CR Cockerell
used a palazzo-like facade for the Sun Fire Assurance Office (1841-
42) in London, as did Edward L'Anson in his Royal Exchange buildings
( 1842-44, also in London (Fig 4) Edward Walters gave the Manchester
and Salford Bank (1860) in Manchester a strongly modeled facade
using sixteenth-century motifs and cutting away substantial parts of the
rusticated ground-floor facade to provide large windows for the banking
chamber (Fig 5).
Among the first American firms to commit itself to the palazzo schema
was McKim, Mead & White. What was to be one of the most significant
architectural practices of the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries began when Stanford White joined Charles Follen McKim and
William Rutherford Mead in 1870. The office expanded rapidly during
the prosperous early 1880s. Many of the substantial timber houses on
America's eastern seaboard designed by the firm at this time are now
recognized as masterpieces of the Shingle Style. But a parallel strand of
the young partnership's work was concerned with a refined brand of
classicism and this strand became dominant by the 1890s. The turning
point was reached as early as 1882 when the firm was commissioned by
Henry Villard, a railroad and shipping magnate, to design a group of
townhouses in Madison Avenue, New York (Fig 6). Having determined
the planning arrangement and decided that the building should have a
Renaissance flavour of some. kind, both McKim and White were away
from their New York office while the design was being worked up by
White's principal assistant, Joseph Morrill Wells. A master of crisp, incisive
detailing, Wells had, before joining McKim, Mead & White,
made large, detailed renderings of the Palazzo Cancelleria and the
Palazzo Farnese, both in Rome, and he habitually hung these drawings
beside his drafting table. The six Villard houses were cleverly packed
into a single U-shaped building around three sides of an entrance court,
and Wells's chaste facades were adapted from those of the Cancelleria,
minus its pilasters. This was no slapdash, late-Victorian game using approximations
of Mannerist or Baroque elements: the Villard houses
made a strong and scholarly architectural statement with High Renaissance
gravity and impeccable judgment. With Wells as catalyst, the
firm had taken the first step along the path it would follow into the
|University Club, New York|
|Fig 11 NSW Club (1884- 87), Bligh Street, Sydney, by William Wardell|
Following the Villard houses, McKim, Mead & White designed two
other definitive versions of the Italian palazzo, both on Fifth Avenue in
New York: the chaste Metropolitan Club (1891-94) (Fig 7) and the University
Club (1896-1900), the latter more Florentine than Roman (Fig8).
Here they were following well-established precedents. The palazzo
facade had been adopted more than half a century earlier in Britain for
those city clubs which were the impregnable domain of upper-class
males. In London, Decimus Burton's Athenaeum (1829-30) was a Palladian
palazzo; Sir Charles Barry recalled the palazzi of the High Renaissance
with his Traveller's Club (1829-32) and with his enormously
influential Reform Club (1837-41) (Fig 9). In Sydney, William
Wardell designed two clubs facing each other across Bligh Street. The
facade of the Union Club (1883-87, now demolished) was a higher and
wider version of Burton's Athenaeum, soberly executed in Sydney
sandstone (Fig 10). The New South Wales Club (1884-87), although
modest in size, loosely followed the model of Barry's Reform Club (Fig11).
Both buildings predated the New York clubs mentioned above.
|Characteristics of the Commercial Palazzo|
|The Commercial Pallazo- basic elevation.||The Commercial Palazzo, displaying some common additional features: cantilevered balcony, string courses, round-headed windows.|
1. There should be a strong 'base' expressing a high storey at street
level and perhaps a mezzanine above. The elements of the base should be
relatively large in scale. The materials, colours and textures used in
the base may with advantage be different from
those used in the storeys above.
2. Following Sullivan's model, there should be a 'shaft' consisting of an indeterminate
number of standardized office floors expressed by unemphasised, repetitive fenestration and with a minimum of elaborate detail.
3. There should be a capital to the building, formed by a non- standard treatment of the uppermost storey or storeys, and a boldly projecting cornice, sometimes with attic storeys above.
(For the remainder of this paper, the terms 'base', 'shaft', and 'capital' will be used to identify the three main components of the facade of a commercial palazzo).
4. Ideally, the building should appear to be constructed of load-bearing masonry; at the very least its facade should mask the dimensions and proportions of the shuctural frame.
5. The design of elements and details should be copied or adapted from classical models (generally from the Renaissance and Mannerist periods), using such devices as arches, the orders, rusticated wall surfaces, aedicules, swags and cartouches.
The club buildings mentioned helped to establish and popularize the
Italian Renaissance palazzo facade for urban buildings which symbolised
respectable, cultured wealth. They provided a scholarly basis for the
development of an appropriate, classical style for medium- to high-rise office buildings,
hotels and apartment buildings. As the Commercial Palazzo style evolved, facades responded -
albeit sometimes loosely - to the following guidelines (Fig 12):
Most architects who designed in the Commercial Palazzo style felt a
need to 'do something' with the elevational treatment of the shaft of the
building to avoid a monotonous pattern of windows punched in the wall
(Fig 13). To this end, the repetitive fenestration of the shaft was some
times punctuated by balustraded balconies supported on consoles, or by
some arbitrary string courses, or by minor changes of window detailing
from one storey to another. Alternatively, the wall of the shaft was
given 'movement' by means of attached piers or giant pilasters.
As the height of skyscrapers grew in the late 1890s and early 1900s it is
noticeable that, in buildings of twenty storeys or more, architects found
it easier to go along with Sullivan and accept the fact that the shaft was
made of many identical storeys and should be expressed accordingly.
With these genuinely tall buildings, consideration also had to be given
to increasing the number of storeys in the base and the capital so that
these elements would be in proportion with the facade as a whole. Consequently
it is not unusual to find one or two transitional storeys above
the base before the expression of the repetitive floors begins. At the
top of the building, Sullivan's recommendation that there should be a
complete top storey containing services was hardly ever followed; the
lift motor room, plant rooms and water tanks were usually contained in
ill-considered excrescences placed on the roof some distance back from
from the plane of the facade. For purely aesthetic reasons, the two or
three storeys immediately under the cornice were often drawn together
into a 'terminating element' by a giant order of columns or pilasters. It
was also not unusual to find several storeys of elaborately treated facade
above the main cornice, rather diminishing the significance of this element.
When the commercial palazzo was located on a corner site (as many
were), more features were likely to appear. The corner of the building
might be cut off on the splay or given a curved treatment. Above the
cornice, the corner might be celebrated by a tower or by a cupola on a
|American Developments: 1880 to 1920|
The commercial palazzo took shape in America during the last two
decades of the nineteenth century. Some works by McKim, Mead &
White will be used to illustrate this evolution, and they serve to show
that the style did not develop especially smoothly or sequentially. Also
it must be realised that they are examples which have been hand-picked
for inclusion in this paper to illustrate a theme. The picture would have
been even less consistent if one were to look at the entire output of
eclectic designs produced by McKim, Mead & White at this time - and
much less if the work of other well-patronised architects of the day
were also taken into account.
Three of McKim, Mead & White's commercial buildings of the 1880s
show that during that decade options for facade design were being explored
somewhat tentatively but with a certain gauche originality. The
American Safe Deposit and Columbia Bank Building (1882-84) in New
York was designed at about the same time as the firm's greatly admired
Villard Houses. While adhering to the basic commercial palazzo format,
it introduced some features which were seldom repeated. Two
bays of the facade project about a metre beyond the main wall plane,
topped by airy loggias under the cornice. Windows are in banks of
three in a quasi-Chicagoan arrangement.6
The Goulet Building (1886-87), also in New York, was hardly taller
than a fifteenth-century palazzo (Fig 14). The treatment of its three storeyed
shaft was radical for its time, especially in the use of projecting,
architrave-like mouldings which grouped windows into vertical
strips on the curved comer of the building.7
The New York Life Building (1887-90) in Omaha. Nebraska is a reminder
of the continuing influence of Henry Hobson Richardson after
his death in 1886. Any commercial palazzo tendencies shown in that
building's hefty masonry facades are subdued by the use of a typical
Richardsonian motif on the upper levels: two ranges of semi-circular
arches, those of the upper range being half the radius of those below.8
By 1890 there were indications that the firm was coming to terms with
the Commercial Palazzo facade. The Hotel Imperial (1889-91) in New
York, complete with splayed comer treatment, looks as if it could have
been built almost anywhere in the world at some time during the 1920s
or 1930s (Fig 15).9
The Browne and Meredith Apartment Building, (1890-91), a seven-storey block in
Boston, Massachusetts, has a more domestic scale in keeping with its residential function (Fig 16).10
In both these buildings the designer felt it necessary to introduce a string
course between every pair of storeys in the shaft. Sherry's Hotel
(1896-98) in New York seems to have been an aberration (Fig 17). Not
only is every part of the facade obsessively rusticated, but there is a
string course for each storey and consequently the facade is singularly
lacking in repose. Ample compensation was, however, to come a few
years later with the Gorham Company Building (1903-06) in New
York, probably the best of the firm's medium-rise Commercial Palazzo
designs (Fig 18). Sheltered by a great two-and-a-half-metre cornice,
the Gorham's beautifully modulated facade owes much to the restrained
treatment of the four-storeyed shaft, enlivened only by small, iron balustraded
|Fig 14 The Goelet Building (1886-87), New York, by McKim, Mead & White.|
|Fig 15 Hotel Imperial (1889-91), Broadway and 32nd Street, New York, by McKim Mead & White. Demolished.|
|Fig 16 Browne & Meredith Apartment Building (1890-91), New York, by McKim, Mead & White.|
|Fig 17 Sherry's Hotel (1896-98), 300 Park Ave., New York, by McKim. Mead & White.|
|Fig 18 The Gorham Company Building (1903-06);|
|Fig 19 Knickerbocker Trust Building (1901); New York, by McKim, Mead & White. The Knickerbocker Trust, established in 1884 by Fred Eldridge was at one time one of the largest banks in America, until its collapse after the bankers panic of 1907.|
|Fig 20 The Flatiron Building (1903), by D H Burnham & Co.||Fig 21 The Municipal Building (1907-16), by McKim, Mead & White.|
McKim, Mead & White's 1901 design for the fourteen-storey Knickerbocker
Trust Building in New York provided an ideal model for the
twentieth-century commercial palazzo. The architects' perspective
shows a nine-storey shaft lightly subdivided into three equal layers and
with its walling and windows treated with great simplicity and restraint.
As it happened, funds for the upper storeys of the building were withdrawn
at the last moment and only the base was built. A Corinthian
temple of commerce, the four-storeyed structure was universally acclaimed
as one of Stanford White's little gems (Fig 19).13 The Knickerbocker
Trust design is a reminder that by the turn of the century the
Commercial Palazzo idiom was being used for some of the new generation
of genuinely tall buildings, especially in New York. An early example
is the American Surety Building (1895) in New York, by Bruce
Price, which rose to twenty-one storeys. The base and shaft were handled
with admirable clarity, but Price's design did not show the same
assurance at the top of the building, which has an indecisive capital with
a proliferation of string courses.14
The building which caught the imagination of New Yorkers was Daniel
H Bumham & Company's Fuller Building of 1903 (Fig 20). Built on a
prominent, triangular-shaped site and rising to a clear height of 87 metres,
the two principal facades of the building came together at an acute
angle at the intersection of Broadway and 23rd Street, giving the building
a sharp 'prow' and dramatically decreasing its visual bulk when
seen from some viewpoints. Unfortunately for the Fuller Construction
Company which built, occupied and named the building, it soon acquired
the sobriquet of the Flatiron Building, by which name it became
world famous. The Flatiron's unusual shape, great height and grand
simplicity have tended to obscure the fact that it was a very large Commercial
Palazzo. It had a big cornice, a powerful, four-storeyed capital,
a simple, regular treatment of the twelve-storeyed shaft, and a base
which related well to the adjoining streetscape although it was perhaps
not sufficiently strong for the building itself.15
In the decade and a half following the Flatiron, The Commercial
Palazzo style was used for some of the tallest and largest New York
skyscrapers. When first built, these buildings were so big that they
dominated their surroundings and read as virtually free-standing towers
Three important examples must suffice, only one of which is illustrated.
McKim, Mead & White's Municipal Building (1907-16) was designed
after Stanford White's death and at a time when failing health (and a
general antipathy to skyscrapers) precluded McKim's participation (Fig
21). Up to cornice level, the Municipal Building is very tall, monumental
commercial palazzo rising from a shallow, U-shaped plan. To
celebrate its civic (rather than commercial) role, the central part of the
building rises well above the cornice in a 'wedding cake' assembly of
Renaissance fripperies which tended to divert attention from the idiom
used for the twenty-three storeys from street level to cornice.16
The swan song for what might be called the 'Super Palazzo' was Ernest
Graham's Equitable Building of 1915. Rising sheer from street to attic,
it was, when completed, the world's largest building in terms of the
volume of space enclosed, and it sparked off moves which led to New
York's zoning laws of the 1920s with their requirement that buildings
should step back from the street frontage as their height increased.17
Contemporaneous with the Equitable, and not dissimilar in general arrangement,
was McKim, Mead & White's Hotel Pennsylvania (1915-20), which,
seen obliquely, gave the impression of being a row of four
identical commercial palazzi.18
Each of the three examples just cited shows that a tall commercial
palazzo is enhanced by a carefully studied, plain treatment of the building's
shaft, with richness and sculptural modelling concentrated in the
base and capital.
The style was pushed into the background during the 1920s and 1930s
by the New York zoning laws, by the rise of Art Deco, and by the
Skyscraper Gothic triumphs of the Woolworth Building in New York
and the Chicago Tribune Building in the Windy City. This was no bad
thing. The Commercial Palazzo style had little to offer the designers of
soaring, cloud-piercing, razzle-dazzle towers such as the Empire State
and Chrysler Buildings: it was best suited to sober, respectable buildings
of from twelve to twenty storeys in height - buildings which
often contributed unostentatiously to the creation of good urban
streetscapes at a scale appropriate to the needs of the first half of the
|The Commercial Palazzo in Sydney|
As previously mentioned, two of William Wardell's Sydney clubs of the
1880s were thoroughly up to date in their use of a style which evoked
the dignified restraint of the High Renaissance palazzo. But the Commercial
Palazzo style as we have defined it did not arrive until the start
of the second decade of the twentieth century. For all but the last five
years of the Federation period, designers of elevator buildings in Sydney
favoured the Free Style or the Warehouse Style. An example of the
former is Culwalla Chambers (1912) by Spain & Cosh. Rearing up to
an almost unthinkable 170 feet (51.8 metres), it was far and away the
tallest building in the city and it was responsible for the quick introduction
of a height limit of 150 feet (45.7 metres) which was maintained
until after World War II.19 At about the same time as the Culwalla
Chambers was completed, the Commercial Palazzo made its appearance.
The 45.7-metre height limit meant that no building conld have more
than thirteen storeys above street level. Many buildings erected in Sydney
from the 1910s to the 1930s had fewer but higher storeys and the
tallest buildings in the Commercial Palazzo style are of no more than
ten or eleven storeys. As a consequence, the shape of a facade is often
nearer to a square than to an attenuated, vertical rectangle, with the
shaft of the facade consisting of six or seven storeys at the most. As
with most pre-1900 American examples, architects usually felt that a
shaft of only a few storeys provided opportunities for thoughtfully
placed accents such as string courses, balconies, or variations to the fenestration.
During the few short years between the death of Edward VII and the
outbreak of World War I, the first manifestations of the Commercial
Palazzo style were evident in Sydney. The Department of Education
Building (1912), by the office of the New South Wales Government Architect,
George McRae, rose to a modest seven storeys above the Bridge
Street footpath, but its site encompassed an entire block (Fig 22). Only
the northern half of the building was constructed before the war. The
southern half was built around 1930 and it was joined so seamlessly to
the earlier structure that very few people are aware of the building's
two-stage construction. The decorous facades of sandstone ashlar rise
from a base of rock-faced sandstone; balconies project at fifth-floor
level, supported on massive cantilevered brackets; the bold cornice is
surmounted by an attic storey. Only just tall enough to be an 'elevator
building' and having a lengthy facade on each of its four street
frontages, the Department of Education Building lacks the vertical
shape of the typical commercial palazzo, but it is otherwise an impressive
early example of the style.20
|Fig 22 Education Building (1912) Bridge Street, Sydney, by George McRae, Government Architect.||Fig 23 Former Daily Telegraph Building (1912-16), King & Castlereagh Streets, Sydney, by Robertson & Marks. 155 KING STREET SYDNEY, The Trust Building||Fig 25 Commonwealth Bank (1913-14), Martin Place & Pitt St. Sydney, by John Fitzpatrick.|
|Fig 24 Perpetual Trustee Building (1914-1 7). 33- 39 Hunter St, Sydney, by Robertson and Marks.|
Even more assured was the Daily Telegraph Building (1912-16) on the
corner of King and Castlereagh Streets opposite the lofty Culwalla
Chambers (Fig 23). Between 1897 and 1912 the architects, Robertson
& Marks, had designed twenty-three substantial commercial buildings
on the western edge of the city in York, Clarence and Kent Streets, but
they were all in the Federation Warehouse Style which the firm did so
much to develop in Sydney at the turn of the century. The Daily Telegraph,
in the heart of the city, warranted more sophisticated treatment.
Its two Commercial Palazzo facades are perhaps not always appreciated
due to the narrowness of the streets they address and to the strongly
emphasised, chamfered corner treatment which extends above the cornice
into a tower and cupola. The Daily Telegraph was designed to
house all of the newspaper's functions, with the printing presses located
in the basement and sub-basement. The greater part of the ground
floor was given over to large, high, public space - the Advertising
Hall - with offices on two levels grouped around it. Above it there
was a complicated arrangement of low storeys, double-height storeys
and mezzanines accommodating paper storage, stereo room and composing
room. On the fourth floor, high-ceilinged spaces were provided
for the board room, library and editorial staff, with five storeys of conventional
office space above. While hardly satisfying Sullivan's dictum
about form following function, the Daily Telegraph's facades loosely
acknowledged the existence of the differing activities going on behind
them, especially the bi-partite treatment of the building's base.21
Both the Daily Telegraph and Robertson & Marks' next commercial
Palazzo - the Perpetual Trustee Company Building (1914-17) at 33-39
Hunter Street - show a competence and maturity in their design suggestive
of the mid-1920s rather than the preceding decade (Fig 24).
The central part of the facade of the Perpetual Trustee is sober and predictable
but the composition is given a lively, unconventional twist by
the flanking bays. Strongly rusticated and displaying quasi-Chicagoan
fenestration, they ignore the main cornice as they rise to Mannerist pediments
at attic level. Nevertheless, the facade as a whole maintains a
sense of dignified order.22
The fourth member of the quartet of buildings that ushered in the Commercial
Palazzo style to Sydney is the Commonwealth Bank Building
(1913-14) by John Fitzpatrick, on a prominent site at the corner of
Martin Place and Pitt Street opposite the General Post Office (Fig 25).
The southern part of the Pitt Street facade, in meticulously conforming
style and details, dates from 1933. The shaft of the building is unusual.
The lower three storeys have broad piers centred on the structural
columns, with a single, wide window-opening between each pair of
piers; on the upper three storeys the piers are replaced by a giant order
of unfluted Ionic pilasters and the windows are divided in two by substantial
stone mullions. These upper storeys of the shaft thus convey
more of an illusion of load-bearing masonry construction than do the
The materials used for the facades of the Daily Telegraph, the Perpetual
Trustee and the Commonwealth Bank established a precedent that was
often followed in the 1920s and 1930s: a base clad in polished trachyte
and a shaft and capital faced with smooth-faced slabs of Sydney or
Hawksbury sandstone. Other cladding materials used less frequently
were brick and architectural terracotta.
During the inter-war decades, the Commercial Palazzo style found
favour with many businesses which valued the image of conservative
probity more highly than that of flashy modernity. Prime users of the
style were banks and insurance companies. Two 'mainstream' examples
of the style are the Mercantile Mutual Building (1927-28), 117 Pitt
Street, by Robertson & Marks (Fig 26); 24 and the former Manchester
Unity Oddfellows' Building (1921-23), 185 Elizabeth Street, by John P
Tate & Young, with its unusual Corinthian order from the Tower of
the Winds in Athens (Fig 27).25 Both of these buildings have facades
which are relatively high in relation to their width, thus they have more
in common with American examples than do many other lower, squatter
buildings. A fine example outside Sydney is the AMP Building (c
1925), 57 Hunter Street, Newcastle, by Eric L Apperly of Wright &
Apperly (Fig 28).
The Commercial Palazzo style finds its most appropriate place when applied
to buildings which form elements in a traditional, linear street. It
is unfortunate that two competently designed banks fail to provide an
entirely satisfactory visual termination to the western end of Martin
Place. The buildings are the former Commercial Banking Company of
Sydney (1923), 343 George Street, by Kent & Massie, and the former
Bank of New South Wales (1927-32), 341 George Street, by Robertson
& Marks (Fig 29).26 The shafts and capitals of the two buildings could
almost be mistaken for a single structure: the cornices align and the
fenestration and cladding are well-mannered and neighbourly in the extreme.
In the midst of so much harmony, the designers and/or owners
of the later building could not resist making its base one storey higher
than its neighbour's and treating it as a large area of rusticated walling
penetrated by a single, huge, Florentine-arched opening. Such a gesture
of one-upmanship would be of little consequence in a linear streetscape,
but as the closure of a vista down Martin Place it is something of a disaster.
Clearly out to take on its competitor, the Daily Telegraph, at its own
game, the former Sydney Morning Herald Building (1922-28) by Manson
& Pickering was built on an acute-angled triangular site at the corner
of Pitt Street and O'Connell Street. While having neither the
height nor the turn-of-the-century dateline of New York's sharp prowed
Flatiron Building, it is still one of the best 'comer buildings' in
Sydney. It is a sad commentary on the Herald's patronage of architecture
to compare the 1920s building with the paper's present headquarters
|Fig 26 Mercantile Mutual Building (1927-28, demolished), Dalton House, 115 Pitt Street, by Robertson & Marks. Sydney.||Fig 27 Former Manchester Unity Oddfellows' Building (1921-23), Elizabeth Street, by John P Tate & Young. Sydney.||Fig 28 AMP Building (c. 1925). Hunter Street, Newcastle by Wright and Apperly.|
|Fig 29 Former Commercial Banking Co of Sydney (1923), by Kent & Massie. 345 George Street, Sydney.||Former Bank of NSW (1927-32), by Robertson & Marks. 341 George Street, Sydney.||Fig 30 Former Scottish House (1926), Bridge Street, by Spain & Cosh. Sydney.|
|Fig 31 Former Shell House (1938), Carrington & Margaret Streets, by Spain & Cosh. Sydney.||Fig 32 Former Farmer's Store (c 1930). George & Market Streets, by Robertson & Marks. Sydney.||Fig 33 Gowings Bros (1912, 1929) 318 George & Market Streets, by Robertson & Marks and C H McKellar. Sydney.|
|The Block (Dymocks Building)|
Along with Robertson & Marks, the firm of Spain & Cosh excelled at
designing office buildings in the Commercial Palazzo style. Two representative
surviving works by Spain & Cosh are the exemplary former
Scottish House (1926) on the corner of Bridge Street and Tank Stream
Way (Fig 30)* and the former Shell House (1938) on the corner of
Carrington Street and Margaret Street (Fig 31).29 The latter building is
faced with buff-coloured tenacotta and is an extremely 'stripped' version
of the style - as befits the late 1930s - with an incongruous Art
Deco ziggurat rising above the cornice to house a large clock.
Occupying adjacent comers of the George Street and Market Street intersection
are two large retail stores which wear the Commercial
Palazzo style with distinction. To the north is the western half of the
former Farmer's department store (c 1930) by Robertson & Marks (Fig
32);30 to the south is the Gowing Brothers Building (1912 & 1929)
built in two stages, seventeen years apart - to the designs of Robertson
& Marks and C H McKellar respectively (Fig 33), but with none of the
first stage visible externally .31
Finally, two examples nearer the low-rise end of the scale. The restrained
Science House (1931) by Peddle, Thorp & Walker at the corner
of Gloucester Street and Essex Street was the first recipient of the
Sulman Award in 1932, and it has worn its years lightly (Fig 34).32
The proportion of length-to-height of its facade is similar to that of
many an Italian Palazzo of the Renaissance period.
|Fig 35 The Royal Automobile Club (1926-28) by Ross & Rowe, on the corner of Macquarie Street and Albert Street, Sydney, achieves an appropriately residential character by using small windows and, above the sandstone base, brick facing with sandstone quoins and trim. 33||Fig 34 Former Science House (1931). Gloucester & Essex Streets, by Peddle, Thorp & Walker|
|Summary and Conclusion|
This paper has introduced some aspects of the Commercial Palazzo style
as it evolved in the United States of America and in Australia. Many
facets of the subject remain to be investigated. What was the degree of
interaction between Australia and other countries other than the USA?
Apart from architectural periodicals, by what means was the style introduced
to Australia? It is known, for instance, that George Birrell
Robertson, a founding partner of Robertson & Marks, spent about a
year overseas in 1910-11 in an attempt to revive his failing health. Did
his reaction to current overseas architecture seen on that trip help lead
his firm to design their first commercial palazzo shortly after his return?
The style's most important contribution to architecture of the early
twentieth century was the provision of an acceptable model for the design
of the facades of steel- or concrete-framed city buildings which enabled
them to take their places comfortably in existing urban
streetscapes. For this reason, only facades have been discussed in this
To summarise some points made in the body of the paper:
1. Louis Sullivan Louis, 'Ornament in Architecture' in Form and Function:
Source Book for the History of Architecture and Design 1890-1939, ed Tim
& Charlotte Bent-n with Dennis Sham. London: Crosby Lockwood Staples in
association with thc Open University Press. 1975, p2.
2. John Wellborn Root, 'A Great Architectural Problem' in The Meanings of
Architecture: Buildings and Writings of John Wellborn Root, ed Donald
Hoffman, New York: Horizon Press, 1967, pp 135, 138.
3. Louis Sullivan, 'The Tall Office Building Artistically Reconsidered' Tim &
Charlotte Benton with Dennis Sharp, op cit, pp 11-12.
4. The Carson, Pirie & Scott Store was originally the Schlesinger & Meyer Store; it
changed ownership in 1904. See Neil Harris. 'Shopping- Chicaogo Style” in “Chicago Architecture”.
5. What is usually referred to as the Prudential Building was commissioned by
Hascal L Taylor, who died before construction began. The project was taken
over by the Guaranty Construction Company of Chicago. Work began in
1895 and the Guaranty Building was occupied in 1896. It was renamed the
Prudential Building about two years later at the time of refinancing through the
Prudential Insurance Company. See Reyner Banham et al, Buffalo
Architecture: A Guide , Cambridge, Massachusetts, MIT Press, 1981,
pp 66-68; Leland M Roth, McKim, Mead & White, Architects, London:
Thames &Hudson, pp 85-90.
6. Ibid, pp 108-109.
7. Ibid, p 109.
8. Ibid, pp 167-169.
9. Ibid, pp 138-140.
10. Ibid, DP 139-141.
11. Ibid, pp 223-224.
12. Ibid, DD 305-308.
13. Ibid; pp 301-303.
14. WalterC Kidney. The Architecture of Choice: Eclecticism in America
New York: George Braziller, 1974 p 81.
15. Paul Goldberger, The Skyscraper, London: Allen Lane, 1982, p
16. Ibid, pp 41-42.
17. Ibid, pp 13-15.
18. Roth, McKim, Mead & White, pp 339-340.
19. J M Freeland. Architecture in Australia: A History,.. Melbourne.
F W Cheshire, 1968, p 219.
20. Ian & Maisy Stapleton, with Howard Tanner, Twentieth Century Buildings of
Signifcance, Sydney: Royal Australian Institute of Architects, NSW Chapter, 1979, p 5.
21. Ian Gregory Little, 'The Practice of Robertson and Marks, Architects: 1829-
1941,' B Arch thesis, University of New South Wales, 139-154, 248-252.
22. Ibid, pp 155-168.254.256.
23. Stapleton, Twentieth Century Buildings, p 3 1.
24. Little, 'Robertson and Marks', pp 203-204,266-267.
25. Stapleton, Twentieth Century Buildings, p 12.
26. Ibid, p 14.
27. Ibid, p 36.
28. Ibid, p 4.
29. Ibid. D 5.
30. Little: op cit, pp 195, 198.
3 1. Ibid, pp 125.244245; Stapleton, Twentieth Century Buildings, p 15
32. Stapleton, Twentieth Century Buildings, p 19.
33. Ibid. D 27.
34. D H Lawrence, Kangaroo, 1923; reprint: Middlesex: Penguin Books
Ltd, 1963, p 33.
|Apperley, Richard (1995-06) (FAB06_057) The Commercial Palazzo: Its Origins Overseas and Some Examples in New South Wales in the Early Twentieth Century. Fabrications : The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand, 6 : 57-81.|
|http://www.essential-architecture.com/STYLE/STY-E11.htm Renaissance Revival / Neo-Renaissance Architecture 1840-1890|
|http://www.sydneyarchitecture.com/STYLES/STY-I06.htm Sydney Architecture Images- Inter-War Commercial Palazzo C. 1915?C. 1940|
|http://www.essential-architecture.com/STYLE/STY-E01.htm Regency Architecture|
|http://www.essential-architecture.com/STYLE/STY-022.htm Edwardian Baroque Architecture British Beaux Arts|
JAAA26 Former Science House (1931). Gloucester & Essex Streets, by Peddle, Thorp & Walker
JAAE47 Orient House, Spring St, Sydney
JAAE48 Former Shell House, 2-12 Carrington Street, Sydney
JAAE49 Former Daily Telegraph Building
JAAE50 Perpetual Trustee Building, 33- 39 Hunter St
JAAE51 Mercantile Mutual Building (1927-28, demolished), Dalton House,
JAAE52 Former Manchester Unity Oddfellows' Building, 185 Elizabeth Street
JAAE53 AMP Building (c. 1925). Hunter Street, Newcastle by Wright and Apperly.
JAAE54 Former Scottish House 17-19 Bridge Street
JAAE55 Former Farmer's Store
JAAE56 Sydney Morning Herald Building
JAAX14 Union Club (1883- 87, demolished), Bligh Street, Sydney, by William Wardell
JAAI16 The Royal Automobile Club