Wanted: Leeds Merrion Centre memories for 50th milestone

Merrion Centre, Leeds, in 1965.
Merrion Centre, Leeds, in 1965.
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The Merrion Centre has been in the Ziff family for three generations and celebrates its 50th birthday this year. Juliette Bains looks back at five decades of family history.

The past 50 years has seen the face of Leeds change like never before.

Today, the city boasts countless top class restaurants, a brand new arena and one of Europe’s biggest shopping centres.

But amid a sea of change, the Merrion Centre has stood the test of time.

When it opened back in May 1964, it was the largest indoor shopping centre in the UK.

Now, 50 years on, it has a value of £116.1million, and had 10.6million visitors last year.

So what’s the secret to its success? Well, some would say it’s in the family.

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Arnold Ziff, owner of Town Centre Securities (TCS), opened the Merrion Centre on his wife Majorie’s birthday – May 26, 1964.

His son, Edward, was by his father’s side for the official opening.

He was only four-years-old at the time, and has since followed in his father’s footsteps, helping keep the Merrion Centre legacy going strong.

Edward went on to join the centre’s estates department in 1981.

He was then appointed to the board in 1985 and became managing director in 1993.

Following the death of his father in 2004, Edward took over as chairman and chief executive of TCS.

But the family bond goes even further, and the Ziffs are proud to say that three generations of the family have been involved in running the centre.

Benjamin, Edward’s son, is managing director of Town Centre Car Parks, and may well follow in his father, and grandfather’s footsteps.

Edward’s daughter is also assistant assets manager.

Edward still has fond memories of the opening day and is proud that his children are continuing the work of their grandfather.

He said: “I vividly remember the opening day of the Merrion Centre.

“It was busy and loud, which added to my excitement, but also to my nerves.

“I think this was the biggest event I had ever been part of!

“I remember watching my father smooth out the last bit of concrete with a trowel before I stepped onto it leaving my footprint, which is still there today.

“I actually keep this trowel in a glass cabinet in my office, it holds such wonderful memories for me.”

The centre helped put Edward’s father on the property map and made him one of the region’s most successful businessmen in the region at the time.

But the family have always been keen to invest in the local community as well.

Arnold’s wife Marjorie, 84, was awarded an MBE at Buckingham Palace in 2011 for services to the community in Leeds.

Along with her late husband, they have donated large sums of money through the Marjorie and Arnold Ziff Charitable Foundation to a string of good causes in her adopted home city, including Leeds Art Gallery and Roundhay Park’s Tropical World.

Marjorie is still involved in the Merrion Centre today and has a genuine interest in new developments, of which there are plenty.

The 1,000,000 sq ft centre now boasts over 100 stores, largely geared towards the budget end of the market.

But the biggest change it has seen in recent years was sparked by the arrival of the First Direct Arena, which sits right on the shopping centre’s doorstep.

An investment of £10m has been spent on redeveloping the Merrion Centre’s new Arena Leisure Quarter development, which faces the arena on Merrion Way.

An additional 50,000sq ft of accommodation has been built and 86 per cent of the projected income is now let or under offer.

The multi-storey car park has also had a major refurbishment as part of the scheme.

But there are some historic gems behind the scenes that hint at the shopping centre’s impressive past.

The Odeon cinema, which opened at the same time as the centre in 1964, has lain virtually undisturbed since closing in the late 1970s.

Back in its heyday, the 900-seat venue was regularly sold out for screenings of films such as Goldfinger and Mary Poppins.

Most shoppers don’t even know it is still there, tucked away on the centre’s first floor, with one of its entrances now sealed off, hidden behind a wall of cash machines on the centre’s ground level.

Its seats have been removed, as has the huge screen that last showed a revival of Gone With The Wind on October 1, 1977.

The much-loved Emmett’s clockwork machines, which took pride of place in a glass case in the middle of the centre, are also gone.

But there are plans to bring the pieces back for the Merrion Centre’s anniversary next month.

As part of the 50th birthday celebrations, Leeds residents are being asked to take a trip down Memory Lane and share their memories of the shopping centre over the years.

A display of all of the ‘Merrion Memories’ will be set up at the shopping centre on May 26.

It will include a selection of photographs, cine footage, and letters detailing people’s memories, and will be available for all customers to see.

Edward added: “I’m calling on the general public to share with me your stories from 50 years, five years, or even just five months ago.

“I know many people share my affection for the Merrion Centre so please dwell wistfully on the past and help us make a wall of Merrion Memories, showcasing the best our shopping centre, the city, and the region, has had to offer over the last 50 years.”

The gallery will run for six weeks and people will be encouraged to come along and keep adding their stories to the display.

If you would like to be part of the Merrion Memory Wall, send details of your memories to 50years@merrioncentre.co.uk.

You can also send them to Town Centre Securities, Town Centre House, Merrion Centre, LS2 8LY, or visit the Merrion Centre’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

Schools can also get involved with the Design our 50th Logo competition.

The centre has joined forces with YEP-backed Child Friendly Leeds to encourage pupils aged from five to 16 to design a 50th anniversary logo, which represents the Merrion Centre and Leeds.

The judging panel will be made up of representatives from the Youth Parliament and Child Friendly Leeds, plus Edward Ziff.

The winner will be invited to a professional design studio to work with a graphic designer to recreate and finalise their design.

It will then be printed on all celebratory material including bunting, which will decorate the centre over the festive period.

The lucky winner will also win an iPad mini and their school will get £250 worth of art products.

The deadline for competition is April 25, but schools must register their interest in the competition by April 7.

All entries will be displayed in the Merrion Centre from May 26 until mid-July.

To take part, or for more information, visit the website at www.merrioncentre.co.uk/news.


May 1963: The first store opens in The Merrion Centre – Radio Rentals.

April 1964: Tesco supermarket opens and 80 per cent of the shops are let.

May 1964: The first phase of The Merrion Centre is officially opened by Marjorie Ziff on her birthday.

Jan 1966: The Merrion Hotel is opened by the Duke of Devonshire.

March 1971: Studio 2 Radio Leeds operates from The Merrion Centre.

April 1972: Opening of Morrisons and Leeds City Council sites.

Nov 1984: Centre has a £250,000 revamp.

July 2004: Edward Ziff appointed chairman of Town Centre Securities PLC.

Nov 2005: Oceana opens after £7million refurb.

Oct 2006: O2 opens in the North Mall.

Dec 2006: Costa Coffee opens on Woodhouse Lane and the start of the new look Woodhouse Lane elevation begins. It is now the busiest Costa in Leeds.

July 2007: Sainsbury’s signs for Woodhouse Lane.

April 2008: Wilkinson opens on Woodhouse Lane.

May 2008: The Central Square is remodeled and the Mall Café is developed.

Jan 2009: Home Bargains opens in the former Woolworths site.

Aug 2009: The new look Town Centre House is launched.

Sept 2011: Work starts on the new look Merrion Street entrances with Coral and KFC.

June 2012: Music venue ‘Beat Bar’ opens.

Sept 2012: Pure Gym and Cosmo sign up to the centre.

Sept 2012: Nicola Adams visits following her gold medal win at the Olympics.

July 2013: Costa sign up for their second coffee shop.

Oct 2013: Pure Gym opens.

Double boost for Leeds city centre cultural and heritage buildings