My favourite modernist building … BNZ, Victoria St, Hamilton

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In February 1996 I arrived in Hamilton to take up a lecturing position at the University of Waikato. At pretty much the same time the Bank of New Zealand (Leigh, de Lisle & Fraser, 1965) in Victoria Street was demolished (1996).

Even though I was fresh from heritage campaigning in Christchurch, I was too caught up in the new job to lie in front of a bulldozer to save the BNZ, a fact that I greatly regret with hindsight.

The new BNZ, which replaced an earlier neoclassical building that still stands at the corner of Victoria and Hood Streets, was designed by a local architectural firm that was known as the ‘city architects’. Leigh, de Lisle and Fraser, and the various iterations of that firm that came before and after, also designed the Hamilton Founders’ Memorial Theatre [1961-63]. The theatre is currently closed and threatened with demolition, such is the level of appreciation of Modernist architecture in the Waikato.

I didn’t think to photograph the BNZ before it came down in 1996, nor did anyone associated with the Hamilton Libraries it would appear; the city’s heritage collection holds no images of the bank other than in the distance of views of Garden Place.

The bank was prominently located beside the Chief Post Office [1938-40], which is now greatly compromised as part of the SkyCity Casino complex. I recall it was a very elegant essay in International Style modernism and I don’t think I am imagining some pops of colour on the façade.

The city’s third BNZ in Victoria Street stands on the site of the 1965 building and does its best to be a good neighbour and create a connection to the Waikato River via a public walkway. Nevertheless, when I look at the 1965 issue of the NZIA Journal, which recorded architectural progress in Hamilton, and count the number of featured buildings that no longer exist or are under threat, I don’t have much confidence that the legacy of the city’s Modernist architects is any more appreciated today than it was 20 years ago.

Ann McEwan

The “My favourite modernist building …” series is in support of Gordon Wilson Flats which is facing threat of demolition


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