Bucharest Centennial: The National Bank of Romania Palace, a landmark building in the capital

Romania-Insider.com has started a series of articles about Bucharest landmarks of architecture or history, which have witnessed the last century of what is now the Romanian capital, and noteworthy people who have helped build the Romanian capital as it is today. This project is supported by the Bucharest City Hall through the Public Monuments and Touristic Heritage Administration (AMPT), within the cultural program Bucharest-Centennial.

Check the full series of articles on Romania-Insider.com here. 

The Palace of the National Bank of Romania (BNR) in Bucharest is considered one of the capital’s most valuable public constructions dating back from the end of the 19th century. The monumental BNR palace building is a landmark of Bucharest’s architectural development of the time and reflects the history of an institution that played an important part in consolidating modern Romania and in the project of the Great Union of 1918.

As such, during the First World War, at the end of which the Great Romania would be established, BNR supported the government by granting several loans to finance the war-related expenses. When granting these loans, BNR had private capital but held the state-granted privilege of issuance. BNR continued to have private capital until 1925.

During that period, BNR also supported various charitable projects. It supported the subscription of 10 million lei, on a one-year term, with the 5% interest offered for the charity works of Queen Marie. Furthermore, BNR granted loans without an interest to refugees coming from Transylvania, for immediate necessities.

Another important philanthropy work of the bank was the Hospital No. 113 in Bucharest, established in September 1916. It was administered by the National Orthodox Society of Romanian Women, and its monthly expenses were covered by BNR, which also took care of its endowment. The hospital ensured the care of many of those wounded in war, where almost two-thirds of the bank’s staff also fought.

The Great Union of 1918, which brought the territorial expansion of Romania, meant, among other things, an effort of coordination and harmonization for the banking system. As such, the monetary unification was started and the leu replaced the currencies previously in circulation in the now united territories. BNR also expanded its network of branches and agencies all over the Great Romania.

Many records of the bank’s activity from that period are now kept at the institution’s archives and at the BNR Museum, hosted in the old palace of the bank, and its first headquarters.

The palace was constructed in the city’s oldest commercial part, in the area bounded by the old Lipscani street, Calea Victoriei, and Smârdan and Doamnei streets, on the plot that used to accommodate the Şerban Vodă Inn.

At the end of the 19th century, Bucharest has started to accelerate its architectural development with the emergence of several financial and banking, cultural or commercial buildings. The BNR palace was the first important banking building in the capital and its architecture shows not only the importance of the institution but also the economic development of the time and the openness towards the European culture. It also marks the renewal of the capital’s architecture at the turn of the century. Most public buildings of importance, such as the Royal Palace, the Palace of Justice or the Palace of the Agriculture Ministry, were designed after the construction of the BNR palace started.

Architect Joseph Cassien-Bernard, a collaborator of Charles Garnier, the author of the Paris Opera, and Albert Galleron, who designed the Romanian Athenaeum, were chosen in 1882 to design the first project of the palace. In Bucharest, Garnier also worked on the National School of Roads and Bridges – the Polytechnic Institute. Romanian architects Grigore Cerchez and Constantin Băicoianu were then tasked with finishing the works on the BNR Palace.

A decision was taken that the façade of the building would face the Lipscani street, and in July 1884 the works were officially inaugurated. Although it was initially estimated that they would last two or three years, construction ended in six years. Besides the extensive size of the project, both the Serbian-Bulgarian war of 1885, which triggered an interruption in the exploitation and transport of the Rusciuk stone used in the construction, and various difficulties in organizing the bids added to the delay.

The project of the palace includes numerous elements from French Classicism architecture, being subordinated to the academic eclectic style. Six sculptures decorate the façade of the palace, four of which are placed on the lateral spaces. The latter were done by Ion Georgescu and Ştefan Ionescu Valbudea and they represent four allegorical characters: Justice (Themis), Agriculture (Ceres), Trade (Mercury) and Industry (Vulcan). Their symbolism communicates the BNR support towards the national economy.

On the inside, the Hall of Counters is the most important space dedicated to the public, now hosting the BNR Museum. The coat of arms of the provinces of the Romanian Kingdom at the time of the construction can be found here: the aurochs of Moldova, the eagle of Muntenia, the lion of Oltenia, and the two dolphins facing each other for the Dobrogea region. Three years after the Great Union, in 1921, József Sebestyén designed the coat of arms of the inter-war Romania, at the request of King Ferdinand I of Romania.

Another important space of the palace is the Gallery of the Governors. Here, the portraits of the 25 governors who led the bank until 1990 and two portraits of Eugeniu Carada, the founder of BNR, can be admired. The Hall of the Council of Administration is the most richly decorated room, in an eclectic style, with powerful baroque accents.

The importance of the palace in the architectural landscape of the capital was noticed since its inauguration. Architect Ion Mincu explained to his students at the Architecture School that the BNR palace was “the most beautiful building in Bucharest,” while architect Toma Socolescu declared it such a fitting building and “which would make any of the capitals of the West proud.”

As the role of BNR developed, its operations expanded and the staff grew, a larger work space was needed. As such, the interior of the old palace would be transformed. In 1915, the ample gallery at the first level turned into an office space. A second floor, also for offices was erected in the secondary wings.

In 1923, BNR purchased two nearby buildings, the Zaharia building and the edifice of the Modern Theater, to adapt them to the bank’s needs. In 1933, the issue of expanding the BNR spaces emerged again, and in 1940 the construction of the new palace began. It ended only in the mid-1950s.

Those who visit the BNR Museum can discover not only the old palace of the bank but also one of the most valuable numismatic collections in Romania, covering over two thousand years. The museum collection includes the oldest coin issued on the territory of today’s Romania as well as the smallest paper notes issued here. It also displays the coins of the ancient city of Histria (Istros), the first to be issued on the current territory of the country,  as well as Dacian and Roman coins, but also the complete series of coins issued by the Romanian state, beginning with 1867 and until the leu’s denomination in 2005. An appointment should be made before visiting the museum.

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