All change at the Exchange

News that the Corn Exchange in Leeds is to become a retail centre devoted to food effectively sees the building return to its roots. But it's only the latest chapter in a long, varied and often surprising story.

IT'S strange to think that a such a striking city landmark, a beacon of civic pride should have been built on the profits of the countryside.

But when the existing Corn Exchange was first erected in 1863 the rural economy was still a dominant force particularly in Yorkshire, one of Britain's essential bread baskets.

From the middle ages to the 19th century, what now is a city was still a town and modern urban areas like Chapeltown and Hunslet were semi-rural.

So even in the immediate area around Leeds corn ruled and that was before considering the huge international trade which flowed in.

So it was that civic and trade leaders hired the skills of architect Cuthbert Brodrick, still bathing in the glory of creating Leeds Town Hall, to build an exchange to replace their former trading home which was already considered too small – just 50 years after being opened.

Brodrick created a unique construction, not round but elliptical to maximise space and light. Utilising light was a major factor in the design, hence the 75ft high domed roof which earned the building the affectionate nickname "the balloon".

The vast glazed sections of the roof were placed in the centre and northwardly so as to illuminate from above without casting any shadows and without the sun's rays altering the colour of the corn when it was inspected.

In the basement large arched entrances allowed horses and carts to pull under the main trading floor to deliver the produce which was unloaded and brought up to the upper levels for sale.

Measuring 130 ft by 85 ft with a total of 47 offices split over two levels it was the perfect home for such a vital trade and the ultimate showcase of Victorian grandeur.

"We talk about modern iconic buildings today." said Dr Kevin Grady, head of Leeds Civic Trust. "But we're talking here a bout a truly iconic construction one which still characterises our city now.

"And Cuthbert Brodrick was the pre-emininet architect of Leeds. His design was actually based on that of the similarly grand Parisian corn exchange, the Halle au Bl, and in doing so created another statement building which trumpeted Leeds as a capital not just of national but also international trade.

"Grain came into the city from across Europe and the Corn Exchange sits at the centre of a section of the city - between Leeds Bridge and Crown Point Bridge - which is dominated by mills and warehouses created because of this trade.

"It's important to realise just how symbolic this building was and what it represented - hence it's grand and dominating design. In fact the original design had yet another storey on top but it wasn't allowed in the end."

The building retained its dominance throughout the 1800s and into the 20th century and became a symbol of the product of working class toil.

So much so that when Prime Minister Lloyd George came to Leeds in 1919 he chose the Corn Exchange to address the assembled masses.

Corn continued to be sold there right up to the 1970s but the size and dimensions meant it was also frequently hired out for other events such as dog shows, cat shows even once, in 1934, the world's biggest mouse show.

But in the new post-war age the building lost some of its appeal which coincided with changes in the international grain market.

A question mark started to hang over the future of the Corn Exchange. In 1964 proposals produced by town planners in the Buchannan Report suggested flattening the landmark to make way for one of four major roads which would encircle the main shopping precinct. Thankfully it was rejected.

In the 1970s there were numerous suggestions for its use, the most favoured was a scheme drawn up by the Leeds Civic Trust to turn it into a concert hall.

But it was the commercial boom of the Thatcherite era which came to the rescue when in 1985 developers Mount Provincial/Specialist Shops put forward plans to turn it into the shopping emporium it has been up until now.

After deliberations with Leeds City Council, who own the construction and lease it out, the new look building was unveiled to the public in 1990.

With its mix of boutique shops and market stalls, helped spark Leeds's modern day renaissance as a major capital for culture and shopping.

More importantly the Corn Exchange is now an opulent Victorian building which forms the centrepiece of a dynamic Exchange Quarter which is a haven for bars, clubs, restaurants, cafes and city living.

Now leasers Zurich Assurance have recently invested 1.5m in carrying out essential redecoration and restoration work to the Grade I listed building.

"The Corn Exchange has always been one of those buildings with wow factor." said Dr Grady. "It's one of those places you bring people to see when they visit here because it is unique.

"It's unique in its architecture but also in the way it blends old and new, the traditional and modern. I think it's great that it is used for a variety of things and not preserved as a monolith.

"Last year it was used as a giant nightclub and now it's going to become, apparently, a specialist food outlet. I think its just that versatility that makes it such a special building and one which we should cherish forever."

In fact the original design had yet another storey on top but it wasn’t allowed in the end.”

The building retained its dominance throughout the 1800s and into the 20th century and became a symbol of the product of working class toil.

So much so that when Prime Minister Lloyd George came to Leeds in 1919 he chose the Corn Exchange to address the assembled masses.

Corn continued to be sold there right up to the 1970s but the size and dimensions meant it was also frequently hired out for other events such as dog shows, cat shows even once, in 1934, the world’s biggest mouse show.

But in the new post-war age the building lost some of its appeal which coincided with changes in the international grain market.

A question mark started to hang over the future of the Corn Exchange. In 1964 proposals produced by town planners in the Buchannan Report suggested flattening the landmark to make way for one of four major roads which would encircle the main shopping precinct. Thankfully it was rejected.

In the 1970s there were numerous suggestions for its use, the most favoured was a scheme drawn up by the Leeds Civic Trust to turn it into a concert hall.

But it was the commercial boom of the Thatcherite era which came to the rescue when in 1985 developers Mount Provincial/Specialist Shops put forward plans to turn it into the shopping emporium it has been up until now.

After deliberations with Leeds City Council, who own the construction and lease it out, the new look building was unveiled to the public in 1990.

With its mix of boutique shops and market stalls, helped spark Leeds’s modern day renaissance as a major capital for culture and shopping.

More importantly the Corn Exchange is now an opulent Victorian building which forms the centrepiece of a dynamic Exchange Quarter which is a haven for bars, clubs, restaurants, cafes and city living.

Now leasers Zurich Assurance have recently invested 1.5m in carrying out essential redecoration and restoration work to the Grade I listed building.

“The Corn Exchange has always been one of those buildings with wow factor.” said Dr Grady. ”It’s one of those places you bring people to see when they visit here because it is unique.

“It’s unique in its architecture but also in the way it blends old and new, the traditional and modern. I think it’s great that it is used for a variety of things and not preserved as a monolith.

“Last year it was used as a giant nightclub and now it’s going to become, apparently, a specialist food outlet. I think its just that versatility that makes it such a special building and one which we should cherish forever.”

rod.mcphee@ypn.co.uk

Adam Chadwick, who was killed in Harehills in 2008.

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