Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Nos. 65 & 67, High Street

As it stands today Nos. 65 & 67 is one of the most impressive examples of neo-Classical architecture in the city. Like Nos. 70 & 71 on the High Street, Nos. 65 & 67 partly owes its current appearance to the major redevelopment which took place between 1903 and 1905 in the vicinity of St Petrock's church.

The history of the adjacent church is both long and interesting but by at least the beginning of the 19th century it was almost totally enveloped by houses. Jenkins, in 1806, wrote that "scarce any part of it can be seen except the tower" and the Rev. George Oliver recorded in 1828 that the church was "buried in the midst of houses". The church was only accessible from the High Street via a passageway which led underneath one of the houses. At the beginning of the 20th century it was decided to sweep all of the surrounding buildings away, both widening the High Street and revealing the north face of the church for the first time in centuries. (Hooker's map of Exeter suggests that the church was already surrounded with houses by the late-1500s.)

Nos. 65 & 67 is the result of a merger in 1901 between two of Exeter's oldest banks: the Exeter Bank, founded in 1768 and the City Bank, founded in 1786. These two banks then merged in 1902 with a London bank, Prescott, Dimsdale & Co, followed by yet another merger in 1903 with the Union of London & Smiths bank. (This bank was later to become part of National Provincial whose name partly lives on as the National Westminster bank.) The mergers from 1901 to 1903 were commemorated in a large plaque which still exists on the High Street facade of Nos. 65 & 67, right. The City Bank already owned premises in Cathedral Yard but it was decided to erect another building adjacent to it for the Exeter Bank, and this is the building which now sits on the corner of the High Street with Broadgate.

The construction of the new building in 1905 coincided with the plans to demolish the properties surrounding St Petrock's church. Instead of building on the exact footprint of the property which previously occupied the site, the line of the High Street frontage was moved back towards the Cathedral Yard. A photograph in the Westcountry Studies Library dated 1905 shows the bank under construction at the same time as Nos. 70 & 71, on the other side of the church, were being demolished. Clearly there was some synchronisation between the clearance of old properties around the church and the construction of the new bank.

Unfortunately little is known about the buildings that the Exeter Bank replaced. I've never seen a photograph of them. One small but fascinating piece of information has survived though concerning what was No. 65. It seems that this building had groin vaulted undercrofts, the only such example that has ever been recorded in one of Exeter's domestic houses. Jenkins mentions the undercrofts in his 1806 history of the city: "Near the Church, under the house now occupied by Mr George Cox, is a cellar; which, from its arched stone groins, has occasioned conjectures, that it was originally the crypt of an ancient chapel." These undercrofts were destroyed during the construction of the bank and the reason behind their existence will forever remain a mystery.

The bank that arose on the site was constructed of beautiful Bath stone. It is three storeys high with a rusticated ground floor. The High Street facade is five bays wide, each bay separated at first and second floor level by pilasters topped with Corinthian capitals. The Broadgate facade is two bays wide, divided again with pilasters. A chamfered corner from the High Street into Broadgate contains the main entrance.

The corner facade is just one bay wide , the windows framed with more pilasters and Corinthian capitals. All of the first floor windows have pointed pediments and balustrading and a deep modillion cornice runs under the eaves. The ground floor windows have round arches inset into which are quarter Tuscan columns. Above the main entrance is a stone parapet supported by enormous corbels decorated with stylised acanthus leaves and within the arch over the entrance is a decorative panel inscribed with the words 'Exeter Bank'. Crowning the corner of the building is a large buttressed cupola with a copper roof.

When you actually stop to look at it Nos. 65 & 67 is a magnificent building, although I don't believe that the cupola is a particularly effective addition. To construct the same building today would cost a fortune. It was granted Grade II listed status in November 1971 and is currently used as retail space.


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