Friday, 2 December 2011

No. 59 & 60, High Street

No. 59 on the High Street left only dates to c1925. It is a peculiar last gasp of 19th century Neo-Classicism carried over into the 1920s and infused with sporadic Art Deco details. It was built as a bank, is still used as a bank and the building it replaced was also a bank!

For much of the 19th century No. 59 was the premises of the Exeter branch of the National Provisional Bank. I only know the most rudimentary details about the building which was replaced c1925 but it was spread over four floors. There were at least two arched entrances, with rusticated keystones, above which ran a cornice on brackets, an arrangement which was not dissimilar to the one which exists today.

The windows on the upper floors were surrounded by simple architraves. A string course running across the facade visually separated each floor. It probably dated to the first half of the 19th century. The building was damaged by smoke and water during a serious fire in 1881 which destroyed all of the properties between the bank and No. 54 but it was repaired afterwards and continued in use for over forty years. The building was expanded between 1911 and 1912 and No. 60, High Street, to the right of No. 59, was demolished to create the extension. During the demolition of No. 60 some interesting discoveries were made.

A series of medieval walls were uncovered within the property itself which were believed to relate to the security wall erected around the Cathedral Close at the end of the 13th century. (Part of this wall is apparently still visible in the cellars of Nos. 41 & 42 further up the High Street.) Underneath these walls, approximately 11ft beneath the level of the High Street itself, two other walls were uncovered. Aileen Henderson Fox, the archaeologist who excavated much of Roman Exeter after the Blitz of 1942, surmised that these two walls were probably Roman in origin and could possibly have been the remnants of a Romano-Celtic temple.

Also discovered in one of the rooms during the demolition were some sections of a 16th century wall painting executed in a typically Renaissance style above right © Devon County Council. Part of it contained an inscription including the name of the Tudor monarch "Elizabeth R". The remains of the painting were fortunately photographed but the medieval and Roman walls, the painting itself and anything else of historical interest were all destroyed during the rebuilding.

For whatever reason, the old bank building and the extension at No. 60 were replaced in the 1920s with the structure which still stands in the High Street today. It is four bays wide, the outer two bays projecting into the High Street, and three storeys high. The ground floor is clad with rusticated grey marble blocks. Two arched windows are framed by two arched entrances, each having protruding keystones. Above each entrance is a scroll pediment. On the corners of the projecting outer bays are square pilasters of white Portland stone with exaggerated entasis and Ionic capitals. All of the first floor windows have round pediments beneath which are lintels with Art Deco-style keystones left. Swags of fruit hang between the first and second floor windows and a deep, bracketed cornice runs along the roof line.

It's not the most exciting building in Exeter and fares poorly when compared with the more successful Neo-Classical bank at Nos. 65 & 67 which was built just twenty years earlier. But the decorative details are of a fairly high quality and the slightly cluttered impression of the facade is at least distinctive. Perhaps surprisingly, No. 59 isn't a listed building but it is probably distinguished enough to warrant a place on the national register eventually.


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