Landmark decisions that saved a jewel in city crown

It’s been 150 years since it opened and 30 years since it was saved, Rod McPhee met one of the rescuers of Leeds’s Corn Exchange, architect John Lyall.

Architect John Lyall and a crowded Corn Exchange in 1930, below.

SURVEYING the maze of shopping centres, arcades and department stores crammed into the heart of Leeds, it’s hard to imagine a time when retail didn’t rule the city centre.

But back in 1990, things were looking bleak.

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The jewel in the crown of local commerce, Victoria Quarter, was yet to open and Harvey Nichols was still a distant dream. Meanwhile, traditional department stores like Lewis’s and Schofield’s on The Headrow were on the ropes, closing a few years later.

But amid the stagnancy were two men with a plan: John Lyall of Alsop &Lyall architects and David Houghton, boss of London-based Speciality Shops, a company with a history of transforming old buildings into homes for independent retailing. And that’s just what the duo did with the Corn Exchange.

But reviving architect Cuthbert Brodrick’s iconic monolith, which officially opened for business on July 28, 1863, was done against the backdrop of transitional times. It was an era when Leeds was still run by old school figures who often viewed change and commercialism with suspicion. The Corn Exchange project represented both.

“I remember when we first started work on the project in 1983, David and I arranged to meet Councillor Moakes from the local authority, outside the Corn Exchange so we could discuss the potential project. This was during the miners’ strike and he turned up an hour late telling us he’d just been on the picket line with Arthur Scargill.

“And I remember one officer we dealt with whom we approached with the idea of removing about a century of industrial grime from the outside to reveal this lovely grey stone, anyway she said to us: ‘Well, we like our buildings black!’.

“But in the end the local authority were really quite supportive because they owned the building and they were having to pay for the upkeep of the place while only a few people came to actually trade corn there anymore.

“I think by the 1980s the building had been used for pet shows and all sorts of weird things. there was even a nightclub in the basement.But, really, it no longer had a really clear purpose.”

Although drawing up the plans and winning the contract proved to be a protracted affair, work started in the late 80s and the new Corn Exchange opened in March, 1990.

Houghton and Lyall spent some £2m renovating the landmark which, although structurally sound, needed to be modernised and made compliant with modern fire safety standards.

It was a tough call given the fact that the Grade I listed construction has to meet with strict regulations in terms of materials and finish. (Particularly as Brodrick was held in high esteem by the city, having created other icons like Leeds Town Hall and what’s now Leeds Museum)Wherever possible Lyall and his team retained original features, or, where necessary, they replicated them, such as the cast iron balustrades. Virtually all of them are in place to this day.

The floor of the main trading area was made of wood which was rotten and duly replaced with a concrete alternative propped up on pillars. (Said pillars had to be carefully placed in the ground beneath the Corn Exchange since Lyall discovered it was peppered with huge bell pits, a result of early, primitive methods of mining coal.)

Radically they came up with the idea of cutting a large circle into the existing trading floor which would open up the basement area and provide a greater sense of space. Next came the addition of two large staircases providing access to the top tier of shops.

He also discovered that the giant dome which makes the building so distinctive isn’t fixed to the stone walls that make up the main structure, instead the steel web that creates the curves are allowed to expand and contract with the changing temperatures without movement being hindered by any fastenings.

But for Lyall what made the Corn Exchange special was not its heritage as much as its future. Houghton’s vision for the scheme captured his imagination and, most importantly, it bore fruits for the city.

“The place was a hit from the day we opened,” he says. “There was nothing else quite like it in Leeds because it was never meant for the big names of shopping it was always intended for the unusual independent retailers.

“David would invited in all these creative people to show off their stuff. He’d say to someone: ‘I’ll give you a rail for six months for free and then, after that, if you’re doing well, we could discuss rent.’ And by doing that he got some really interesting people in. The success of the Corn Exchange then rippled outwards.”

The shopping development provided a launchpad for names such as Aqua Couture and Nicholas Deakins which went on to expand into Victoria Quarter as they took off. Throughout the 1990s the Victoria Quarter and Corn Exchange formed an axis which modern Leeds evolved around. Developers behind later schemes, such as Trinity Leeds, still cite both projects as providing the distinction which has made the city a go-to location for investing in retail. Leeds was never going to be a clone town with this unique domed construction at one end of Vicar Lane and Victoria Quarter at the other end.

Meanwhile, the Corn Exchange created its own Exchange Quarter by reviving a whole segment of the city centre stretching down to the riverside.

At a cost of around £750,000, Lyall and Houghton also renovated part of the White Cloth Hall behind the Corn Exchange and installed cobbles and heritage street lighting on the lanes outside.

“It was a terrible area before then,” he says. “It was basically a red light zone and some of the buildings dotted around the block were rat infested and full of glue sniffers, you know, it was really quiet scarey going into these places to investigate them initially.”

The regeneration might well have spread onwards into Kirkgate too, with plans to sprinkle their magic on the dilapidated streets between the Corn Exchange and Leeds Markets.

Unfortunately, the council insisted on opening an amusement arcade on Kirkgate which effectively scuppered any plans to gentrify the area. Tellingly, to this day the area remains an eyesore compared to the rest of the city centre.

But with the passing of time, such trifles have been forgotten, eclipsed by the legacy of a scheme which, despite having some ups and downs, is still holding its own.

“The Corn Exchange certainly looks a lot busier now than it looked a couple of years ago, which is good to see,” says Lyall. “Because there was a real sense of satisfaction resulting from what we did. Of all the projects I’ve worked on over the years this was definitely one of my favourites.”

Two days celebrating 150 years of a Victorian masterpiece

THE Corn Exchange stages some special 150th birthday celebrations this weekend.

In line with its ancestry, the two day birthday bash will include a gin palace, live music and a pop-up Victorian museum.

Key attractions include an ‘emporium of optical novelty’, by photographer and film-maker Simon Warner, will which will allow visitors to examine a variety of Victorian optical toys including stereo cards, a kaleidoscope, zoetrope and flickbook.

On Sunday, baking enthusiasts are invited to enter their own speciality Victoria Sponge in a cake competition, judged by Lynn Hill, founder of the Clandestine Cake Club.

Entrants must bring their cakes along ready for judging at 2pm on Sunday 28 July to stand a chance of winning a £50 voucher to spend at Primo’s Gourmet Hot Dogs at Leeds Corn Exchange.

The events take place tomorrow from 10am to 6pm and on Sunday from 10.30am to 4.30pm.

For more details of this weekend’s events visit: 
www.leedscornexchange.co.uk.