Leeds Central Library Opens Its Doors


Tom Smith takes his ‘Amateur Rambling’ to town where he takes a look round the Central Library, making the most of Leeds’s Heritage Open Days earlier this month…

The weekend before last Heritage Open Days took place, a brilliant national event that sees public and private buildings and organisations open up to the public.

Here in Leeds there was plenty to see. I plumped for Sunday’s Central Library tour, and gathered myself inside the Calverley Street entrance of the library, which (first learning of the day) was the original library entrance.

Our guide was a quiet but knowledgeable member of staff. He initially talked about the building’s construction in the last quarter of the 19th century, a little of its design by George Corson (who was also responsible for the Grand Theatre), and something of the materials used. I was interested to note that in today’s money the building cost around £6m. I can’t imagine a public building today costing less than twenty times that.

I was eager to see and learn about the public areas, and itching to see behind the scenes, beyond the doors marked ‘private’. We teasingly worked our way up the building, though the main lending library, the music library and the reference rooms. It was only then did we get to see some hidden-from-the-public spaces and balconies, some sadly devoid of any original features, others richly panelled or tiled and crammed full of wonderful books, maps, newspapers and miscellaneous city records.

It was enlightening and saddening to see the effects of time on the building, particularly the brutal and unsentimental alterations of the 60s and 70s. I can’t for the life of me think why such destruction went unchecked.

All too soon our hour was over, and I was over. We the tour in the Tiled Hall, in which it was once feared “people will be continually gazing up at it, instead of quietly reading the magazines and newspapers”. This room was insanely hidden from view and subjected to officially-sanctioned vandalism for years, before recently being restored to something approaching its former majesty. Formerly the reading room, now a tea-room, this was a suitably English end to our Heritage Open Day.

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