Liverpool’s cultural learning zone

Liverpool Central Library: atrium

Photo: © Christopher Brook

When Harvey Lonsdale Elmes’ St George’s Hall was completed in 1854 it brought dignity to the untidy area known as Shaw’s Brow around St John’s Church and St John’s Market (both now demolished), and the building contractor Samuel Holme proposed that its setting should become a kind of forum “round which should be clustered our handsomest edifices, and within the area of which our public monuments ought to be placed”.

The steep gradient which falls away from the site of the Hall precluded any kind of enclosed space, so the donor of the Free Library and Museum, the merchant, banker and politician William Brown (1784-1864), gave the strip of land on which was laid the street that now bears his name.

Initially, the Free Library and Museum (1857-60) sat alone towards the bottom of the hill.  Its imposing Corinthian portico complements St George’s Hall opposite. The grand entrance steps came later, c1902.

The Library was extended by adding the Picton Reading Room (Cornelius Sherlock 1875-79), an impressive galleried rotunda, modelled on the British Museum reading room in Bloomsbury.  It’s an inspiring place to read or study, and it has an entertaining echo that transmits conversations from the opposite side of the great space.  Its column-free basement, originally a lecture theatre, is now a versatile and attractive children’s library.  The semi-circular external façade pivots a bend in the street-line and responds to the apsidal end of St George’s Hall. 

Later still, behind the William Brown Street buildings, the Hornby Library (1906) was built to a dignified design by the City Architect, Thomas Shelmerdine. It now exhibits the Library’s rare books collection.  It’s noted for displaying the only copy of John James Audubon’s Birds of America (1827-38) that is regularly turned from page to page.

These two extensions are named respectively after the pioneer of the city’s public libraries, Sir James Picton (1805-1889) and the merchant and bibliophile Hugh Frederick Hornby (1826 -1899) who bequeathed his book-collection and £10,000 for a building to house it.

The Library and Museum were badly damaged in the May 1941 Blitz though most of their collections had been removed, and reinstatement took until the end of the 1960s with a further extension in 1978.

The rebuilt facilities did not wear well, and the increasing demand for digital resources eventually required a radical refurbishment, safeguarding the Grade II*-listed Victorian structures.

The resulting design by the Austin-Smith:Lord practice is open plan, transforming the usefulness of the building with a dramatic atrium topped by a glass dome and above all a roof terrace.  It reopened to the public in 2013.

The potential uses of the Central Library complex are virtually limitless, from school homework to academic research, to online business support and keep-fit for over-sixties.

I called on the Archives service to provide the last visit on the last day of the last Interesting Times tour, Unexpected Liverpool (June 6th-10th 2022).

The Archivist, Jan Grace, and her colleague Carl gave a tour of the Victorian spaces and showed us the comprehensive collections in the third-floor Local Studies area, all of which are freely available on open shelves.

Because we’d spent the week touring odd corners of Liverpool’s history, I’d asked Jan to provide a display in the Search Room of archives relating directly to the buildings we’d visited, from the Atlantic Tower Hotel where we’d stayed to such places as the Florence Institute, the Park Palace Ponies, the Lister Drive Old Swimming Baths and more Gothic churches than you could shake a stick at.

I was particularly grateful to have this exceptional opportunity as a grand finale to my tour programme, which has always aimed for the “Heineken effect”, visiting places that other tours can’t reach.

Liverpool Central Library: Archives Search Room – Unexpected Liverpool tour, June 10th 2022

Photo: © Jan Grace

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.

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