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June 3, 2020 – Published in Design & Decor Spring 2012 issue

Banking Palazzo-style

Words: Deana Luchia

Photography: Alan Carville

It’s a rare privilege for any bank to be housed in a beautifully restored palazzo. However, the Frederick Street wing of the 400-year old Palazzo Spinola in Valletta is now home to Lombard Bank, following a complete restoration, which won the 2010 Din l-Art Ħelwa’s Award for Architectural Heritage.

The original palazzo was divided into three parts at the end of the nineteenth century and while Lombard Bank has owned the Republic Street wing of the palazzo since the early 1970s, using it as the company’s head office, unfortunately the middle part of the palazzo, which opens onto St Christopher Street, was converted into a block of flats in its place.

Lombard Bank bought the wing on Frederick Street in 2004 and two years later restoration began under the helm of architects Paul Camilleri and Associates. The undertaking took four years, transforming a run-down, damaged building into the now stunning Lombard premises with myriad architectural features including vaulted ceilings on the ground floor, a remarkable garigor, and an open portico.

Lombard’s aim with the restoration project was to restore the palazzo to its original state while incorporating modern features necessary in any office, including an elevator and steel staircase (both of which are tucked away from the main body of the building). Lombard Bank is also responsible for the current restoration of the property at 225 Tower Road. Once fully restored this building will be used as a Lombard Bank branch.

In Valletta, the Frederick Street wing has at its centre part of what would have been the palazzo’s large courtyard. (The rest of the courtyard is now lost, hidden under the block of flats.) The courtyard has been covered with a glass roof which enables the building to be used year-round and allows for the building’s temperature to be kept constant. This glass roof is the work of Pillow Space Frame, as is the steel staircase.

I’m shown around the building by Lombard Bank’s Edward Pirotta. Thanks to the glass roof, even on a grey rainy day the courtyard is suffused with light and its architectural features are perfectly showcased. ‘The aim,’ says Pirotta, ‘was to keep replacement to a bare minimum. To repair whatever could be repaired rather than create something new.

‘We knew straightaway that the features we saw in the building had potential,’ Pirotta says as we take the elevator up to the second floor (added during restoration and set back so that it’s not visible when looking skywards from the ground floor), now utilised as the bank’s credit department.

On the first floor the open portico has glass railings, also the work of Pillow Space Frame. Opting for glass, Pirotta tells me, made complete sense as there were no clues as to what the original balustrades had been made of. ‘We had no record, no idea as to whether they were made of stone or wood, so rather than guess we decided to go with glass.’ The glass doesn’t detract in any way from the original feel of the architecture and allows for more light to filter through to this floor.

The first floor houses a multifunction room and a board room, each with carefully worked doors, replicas of those found during restoration, with the exact same patterns and shutters and painted in a pale green/blue that was typical of the period. This floor has a number of columns that were discovered during the cleaning of the stonework. These columns were hidden behind other bricks, swallowed up by later wall additions.

Fortunately, the columns were not excessively damaged during the construction of these later walls – the main body of each column was not penetrated in any way. What’s also remarkable about the columns is that they were each made from a single piece of stone, something that is not possible today, as stonework of this size is done with machines. A column that did have to be made was in fact built from two pieces of stone, its seam visible from across the portico.

One of the most outstanding features of the building is the extraordinarily wide garigor which winds its way from ground to roof level. Wider and so much more easily navigated than most garigors, it’s a feat of fine craftsmanship. Another standout feature is the rare groin-vaulted ceiling on the ground floor, found in few other buildings in Malta.

The ground floor is to be used for functions and this will be a perfect way for the public to see the palazzo close up. It houses a fountain, original, whilst the columns around it were moved during the refurbishment from an unlikely part of the hallway entrance. ‘These,’ says Pirotta, ‘distorted the beauty of the entrance and were not original so we were granted permission from MEPA to move them to around the fountain.’ In this ground floor area there are also four large stone troughs and antiques that the bank has collected over the years.

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