Sydney Architecture Images- Central Business District

AMP Building

architect

Wright and Apperly

location

Hunter Street, Newcastle

date

c. 1925

style

Commercial Pallazo

construction

Steel/Concrete frame, stone cladding.

type

Office Building
 
The AMP building is a six storey building with a steel and reinforced concrete structure with an inter-war Italian Renaissance Palazzo style façade. The five bay sandstone façade features Florentine arches at ground floor level, with a decorative balcony over the central main entrance. Above ground floor, the façade is characterised by plain surfaces and simple rectangular windows, making up a repetitive pattern punctuated by restrained ornamentation which, as on the ground floor, emphasises the central bay. The composition is framed by projecting pilasters finishing in a pair of cartouches under the deep cornice which terminates the building against the sky. Half-round roof tile copings soften the formality of the façade. Remnants of the rooftop balustrade which once framed the AMP statue are visible from the street.

The building retains impressive timber doors to the former service area and to the marble faced stair providing access to the upper levels. The interior of the former service area is opulently finished, featuring timber panelling, moulded ceilings, an inlaid marble floor and elaborately carved service counter.

Newcastle's CBD is of predominantly Victorian scale, and thus the AMP building and its fellow bank and insurance company buildings of the 1920s and 1930s retain their sense of grandness on the Hunter Street streetscape. The AMP building forms part of an early twentieth century commercial streetscape complementing the important complex of Victorian public buildings on the northern side of Hunter Street between Bolton and Watt Streets.

The AMP building is associated with the history of Australian life insurance and with the development of Newcastle as a commercial centre, with a central business district evolving around Hunter and Watt Streets from the second half of the nineteenth century.

The AMP started life in 1849 as The Australian Mutual Provident Society, a mutual company offering life insurance policies, deferred annuities and the like. It was the first Australian life insurance society, and grew up alongside the giants of life insurance in the British Empire, such as the European Assurance Society (London) and the Northern Insurance Company (Scotland) to become a major force in life insurance in Australasia and one of the first Australian firms to make an international name. (Blainey, pp. vii-viii, p. 10, 45) The AMP began with a small board of individuals giving their time voluntarily, and opening for an hour or two each day in rooms above a grocery store in George Street, Sydney. The first years were an uphill battle; Sydneysiders did not seem to understand the benefits of life insurance, and it was acknowledged in retrospect that the policies offered in the earliest years did not reflect the financial realities of most working families. For the first year, the Society survived entirely through policies taken out by board members. Almost as soon as the AMP was established, agents were sought in population centres outside Sydney. A letter was sent to clerks of petty sessions and minor legal officials across New South Wales inviting them to become agents of the Society. Eleven responses were received, including one from Maitland, where a local auctioneer became the agent. (Blainey, pp. 8-11)

By 1860 the AMP was on a stable footing, selling 500 policies in that year. The AMP's first full time insurance salesman also began work that year, travelling the country and lecturing on the virtues and virtuousness of life insurance. The AMP also purchased land in Pitt Street, Sydney, and commissioned eminent architect Edmund Blackett to design their first purpose-built premises. Charles Summers, a Melbourne based sculptor, was commissioned to provide a sculpture to adorn the building. He made a zinc cast of Greek goddess of fortune, Tyche, holding a palm branch and cornucopia and presiding over a reclining family. This became the AMP's emblem, and copies of the group of figures were to stand on the highest point of all major AMP offices over the following century, including their Newcastle buildings. (Blainey, pp. 30-4)

The 1860s also saw the establishment of AMP's first serious domestic rivals, particularly in Melbourne, where a sense of Victorian 'nationalism' attracted custom to Victorian societies such as the Mutual Life Association and National Mutual Life Association, both established in 1869. The AMP responded by setting up a Victorian board, a move which set a pattern for the decentralisation of AMP's operations. Information still travelled slowly in the colonies, and the need for the sending of medical reports, forms and applications to and from the Sydney office for the board's decision, hampered the Society’s efforts in other regions. Through the 1870s the Society became a truly Australasian operation, setting up boards in New Zealand once the Maori War was deemed to be concluded (1871); South Australia (1872); Queensland, after the risks of life in the tropics had been assessed; (1875) and Tasmania (1877). (Blainey pp. 39, 46-8, 66, 74-80).

The 1880s carried this decentralisation thrust to the regions of New South Wales. The Hunter River district was to be managed from both the rival towns of Newcastle and Maitland. It would seem that a presence was soon set up in Newcastle and by the turn of the century the AMP had a main street presence on Watt Street in the form of a two storey stone clad office with a classical façade, topped with the AMP's emblematic statue (see image no.7) a scaled-down version of the grand classical edifices of the main branch offices in Sydney, Adelaide Melbourne and Hobart (Blainey, pp. 95, 136, plates 3 and 4)

The selection of Watt Street as an address for the AMP premises was no accident. Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the developing commercial and business life of Newcastle was for the most part concentrated on the two main thoroughfares, Hunter and Watt Streets. The penal settlement from which the city of Newcastle grew, had grown up around Watt Street (then known as George Street) which lead from the wharf to the commandant's house overlooking the small settlement. After most of the convicts were moved to Port Macquarie in 1822, the settlement was re-laid out by Surveyor Dangar on a grid pattern which forms today's central Newcastle. Dangar's plan was for a town with 190 allotments, a church enclave and a marketplace, suited to fulfilling the function of main centre and port town of the rapidly developing Hunter Valley. In the event, Maitland-Morpeth proved to be the main centre of the Hunter Valley region prior to the coming of the railway. In 1829 the Australian Agricultural Company, looking for coal-bearing land, was granted 2,000 acres on the western boundary of the town (Brown Street), bringing new life to Newcastle. Up to the 1850s, the Company did not have the right to alienate any of its land, even when it was no longer useful for mining. The development of central Newcastle as a town was thus restricted to the compact area east of Brown Street. The mid 1850s saw the arrival of rail in Newcastle, and business began to take off, as the colony's economy generally boomed due to the gold rushes. (City Wide Heritage Study, Thematic History, pp. 3-6)

From the mid 1850s banks began to establish branches in central Newcastle. The Bank of New South Wales was the first to commence operations in Newcastle on Watt Street in June 1853. The Bank of Australasia followed, opening an office in 1854, on the corner of Hunter and Brown Streets. (F. A. Cadell, pp. 16-17, 23) A number of other prominent banks followed and the latter decades of the nineteenth century saw a bustle of bank activity in the main business district centred on Hunter Street and Watt and Bolton Streets, with parcels of land and premises frequently changing hands between banks, as they jostled for a good position. This period also saw the construction of an important group of public buildings on the northern side of Hunter Street, between Bolton Street and Watt Street, which consolidated the status of Hunter Street as the premier business thoroughfare: an Electric Telegraph and Post Office and a new Police Station in 1861; expanded Post and Telegraph Office in 1872, which later became the Public Works Department office; and in 1903-1904 the Post Office again moved to expanded premises, the impressive classical edifice on the north eastern corner of Bolton and Hunter Streets. (Government Architect's Branch, PWD NSW, 1983, pp 3, 8; Maitland & Stafford, 1997, p 43) The banks, on the other hand, did not put their architectural stamp onto Hunter Street until later, commonly adapting existing buildings for their purposes until the 1920s and 1930s. (F. A. Cadell, Early Banking in Sydney and Newcastle pp. 19 - 24)

Following the Great War, the AMP strengthened its regional presence, opening major offices in Narrandera, Newcastle and Taree. In Newcastle, 55 Hunter Street was purchased for the erection of new, larger, premises. Its repositioning also reflected the ascendancy of Hunter Street as the main business thoroughfare. This lot had formerly hosted the first Newcastle premises of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney, from 1868 to1897, when the bank moved to the corner of Hunter and Bolton Streets, and then of the City Bank of Sydney between 1897 - 1909, when this bank moved to the corner of Hunter and Watt Streets. (Blainey, p. 181; F. A. Cadell, pp. 18-20) The new AMP Society building was completed in 1927, a steel and reinforced concrete structure of six storeys presenting a Hawkesbury sandstone facade to Hunter Street. The Italian Rennaissance palazzo style facade typifies the final phase of classicism in the architecture of commercial buildings. The design was prepared by Apperly and Wright. The building was originally designed with fifty offices and twenty strong rooms, reflecting the period of rapid growth in Newcastle as well as the importance of the city in AMP's business. (Maitland and Stafford, p. 125) The building sported the emblematic AMP statue, framed against the sky by a stone balustrade (see image no. 8). Its construction was part of a wave of substantial rebuilding activity particularly on Hunter Street between Newcomen and Watt Streets during the 1920s. A new period of commercial development in the city centre had been ushered in by the establishment of the BHP Steelworks at Port Waratah in the 1910s and associated heavy industry, resulting in a new influx of banks, insurance companies and other office users to the city centre. Many of the buildings constructed by these companies made use of the recently developed safety elevator and hidden steel frame to attain six or eight storeys, mostly clad in classical facades. Other buildings resulting from this activity include the NAB (or CBC) building on the corner of Hunter and Bolton Streets, and the ANZ building (former Union Bank) diagonally opposite and the T and G Building at the corner of Hunter and Watt Streets. Sydney-based architects were prominent in this effective redesign of Hunter Street. (Maitland and Stafford, pp. 18-19; F. A. Cadell, p. 19; Apperly, Irving and Reynolds, pp. 168-171, 183).

In 1998, the AMP became a public company and was listed on Australian and New Zealand stock exchanges. This has resulted in a change of business direction, transforming members into 'shareholders' and in Geoffrey Blainey's view losing the democratic structure and benevolent associations of the former Society (Blainey, p. Viii) The AMP statue was removed from the building, perhaps as early as 1956, and the firm no longer occupies these offices.

 

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