Soane’s New Bank Buildings
Sir John Soane was the architect and surveyor to the Bank of England for 45 years, a role which saw him almost rebuild the entire site at Threadneedle Street in the City of London. However, the role included many other less well-known projects; Here Drawings Cataloguer Tom Drysdale rediscovers the now demolished ‘New Bank Buildings’.
The rebuilding of the Bank of England is, besides the building of his own house and museum, Soane’s most celebrated and well-known achievement. Most attention focuses on the vast island site that he assembled in the City of London between 1788 and 1833. This was not the only work that Soane carried out as the Bank’s architect, however. He also prepared 11 buildings to act as branch banks in the provinces and designed the National Debt Redemption Office in Old Jewry and a terrace of houses which came to be known as the ‘New Bank Buildings’ to the north west of the Bank on Princes Street.
It is perhaps unsurprising that the branch banks are little known. Soane made no original designs for these and the buildings that he modified lasted only for a brief period of time before they were either demolished or vacated by the Bank (for the full story, see the previous blog post on Soane’s Branch Banks). But a strong case can be made for remembering the houses on Princes Street.
New Bank Buildings, Princes Street, 1808 (SM 12/4/1)
The New Bank Buildings, designed and executed between 1807 and 1811, were five mercantile residences combining ground-floor commercial premises with upper-floor domestic accommodation. The new houses were described by Soane as 'one uniform pile, in every respect symmetrically composed, and presenting more of the appearance of one grand hotel than of several distinct mansions'. Looking at the perspective above, it is easy to agree with Soane’s description. The drawing shows a 15-bay building with the end bays projecting and a curved portico in front of the central entrance. The façade is decorated with Soanean details, including antefixes (cube-like or cross-vaulted ornaments often with a semi-circular motif on each side) on the balustrade and incised panel pilasters across the centre of the frontage. There is little to suggest that behind the façade is a complex arrangement of five houses which intersect like pieces of a jigsaw (below).
Plan of the New Bank Buildings, 12 December 1809 (SM 11/2/7)
There was some difficulty in letting the houses due to the high rental prices that were asked by the Bank and it wasn’t until 1810 that all five were occupied. The first tenants included the London Dock Company (No. 1), merchant bankers Thellusson, Nephew & Co. (No. 2) and Joseph Kaye, the Bank’s solicitor (Nos 4-5). Between 1809 and 1811, counting houses (offices for clerks) were built behind Nos 1-3. These could be entered from the rear of the site and Soane designed an idiosyncratic entrance courtyard for them finished with shallow domed caps, antefixes and urns. In the next decade, Soane’s building was twice threatened by plans to widen Lothbury, but the houses survived until the end of the nineteenth century when they were demolished and replaced with an ‘ornately Neo-Palladian’ building by A. C. Blomfield (since demolished – see Pevsner and Bradley, The Buildings of England: London 1: The City of London, 1997).
J. M. Gandy, Composite of views of the Bank of England, exhib. RA 1822 (P84)
The existing literature tends to confine the history of the New Bank Buildings in most cases to a few short paragraphs, but they deserve more attention. There is certainly scope for further study. Soane’s commercial architecture, for instance, might form one avenue of research, or the New Bank Buildings might be compared with Soane’s Regent Street terrace. It is surely significant that representations of the New Bank Buildings appear no less than three times on the famous capriccio of Soane’s executed works in the form of a model of the houses, a model of the entrance to the counting houses and in plan form on the architect’s desk. In addition, on Joseph Gandy’s composite of views of the Bank of England (above), the New Bank Buildings are depicted twice amongst drawings of the great halls and courts of the Bank. It might even be suggested, therefore, that a more holistic approach needs to be taken towards the architectural history of the Bank of England which would consider the New Bank Buildings as part of the Bank’s complex in the City, rather than as a separate entity. After all, it seems that this is how Soane himself saw his ‘grand hotel’.
The drawings for the New Bank Buildings have been catalogued as part of ‘Money, Power and Politics: Sir John Soane’s Architecture for the Regency State’, a two-year project funded by the Pilgrim Trust which began in January 2013. This follows on from a previous project, ‘Building Sites’, which saw the cataloguing of Soane’s major London commissions including the Bank of England. The cataloguers for ‘Money, Power and Politics’ are Tom Drysdale and Jill Lever.
Digital photographs of a large proportion of the Soane drawings have been generously funded by the Leon Levy Foundation.