Every day, thousands of pedestrians pass by the grand Commonwealth Bank branch on the corner of Martin Place and Castlereagh Street, in Sydney’s CBD – but few of them are likely to know about the mechanical marvel under their feet.
Inside what was once the old headquarters of the Government Savings Bank of NSW, to later became home to the Commonwealth Bank after they merged in 1931 during the Great Depression, hides a bank vault with a door 700mm thick and weighing 27 tonnes.
It’s so large that, when it was installed in 1926, it had to be brought up from the docks by a team of 25 horses because no motor vehicle was powerful enough to carry it.
The door was built in England by famed lock-maker Chubb and is still one of the largest of its kind in the world.
“This great barrier of steel is the most scientific defiance that has yet been invented by the mind of man to oppose the explosives of the safe-breaker,” gushed The Sun newspaper at the time. “Once this door is clicked, nothing will be able to get you out – not even dynamite.”
Almost a century later, the great Commonwealth Bank vault underneath Martin Place is again in the headlines — described as “the grandest, most opulent [vault] of them all” in The Sydney Morning Herald.
The grandiose Savings Bank Building was designed by Sydney architects Herbert Ross and H Ruskin-Rowe, who were inspired by the Beaux Arts neo-classical style that favours symmetry, classical Greek and Roman details, and stone materials.
The building is intentionally grand – after World War I, it was decided the building needed to reflect the optimism of the late 1920 (of course, just before the Great Depression), and was intended to express the Savings Bank of NSW’s prestige, strength and security. It was a new, bricks-and-mortar symbol of Australia’s relatively new nationhood.
The branch’s current manager Diana Shekari notes that while the style was classical, the build was innovative.
“It included an unusual fire escape that was eight metres above the ground, vertically rising entrance doors, gold bullion and ledger hoists and also hosted at the time world-leading plumbing, heating and lift technology,” she says.
The building became home to the Commonwealth Bank of Australia from 1931, served as the bank’s headquarters from 1990 until 2007, and today continues to be the flagship branch of the bank.
Framed by Sicilian White and Vert Antique marble from Italy, the vault’s walls, floor and ceiling are densely thick, and made of concrete that has been re-enforced with steel bars randomly placed throughout.
Ms Shekari says even at the build stage, the security of the vault-to-be was paramount.
“The Savings Bank of NSW were so fiercely protective of their safe that during the build, no team of workmen worked on the construction of the safety deposit vault for more than a week, to ensure they did not know where the steel bars had been placed by the next team,” she said.
Inside the vault are thousands of safety deposit boxes, varying in size and each with their own individual lock. When the vault first opened in 1928, the annual rental for a small safe was 1 pound and 1 shilling.
There is still a magic to the vault – and demand remains for the service, says Ms Shekari. “You should see the lines to get in here at Christmas – people coming in to check on their belongings, withdraw cash for festive season purposes…it really brings the spirit in.
“While we’re home to over 12,500 safes in this space and demand is high, there is always an allocation available,” she said.