Cuthbert Brodrick’s design for the Leeds Corn Exchange (1860-2) responded to a brief to provide facilities for merchants to sell their corn both by sack and by sample, which required considerable floor space and an abundance of natural light.
By his design for Leeds Town Hall (1853-58) he had already proved his ability to provide pomp and circumstance in his public buildings. In his Corn Exchange design he displayed virtuosity and an outstanding talent for engineering innovation and precision.
The site was awkward, lying between the White Cloth Hall and the Assembly Rooms. Brodrick’s design is unusual, a heavily-rusticated ellipse with two semi-circular entrance porches and a shallow dome overall, but it’s not original. It harks back to the circular Parisian Halle aux Blés (1763-67) which was given a dome in 1811, and which to some extent inspired the Prince Regent’s stables in Brighton (1803) and the London Coal Exchange (1846-49).
The elliptical, domed exterior is utterly different from any other building in Leeds, its heavy masonry emphasised by diamond rustication derived from the Palazzo dei Diamanti in Ferrara (1493-1503).
Within, the walls provide offices on two levels, with a central space top-lit by an oculus and a balcony at first-floor level. The additional roof-light on the north-east side was added in 1915.
The basement was designed to be accessible to carts to facilitate sack deliveries, but at first it was used as the headquarters of the borough fire brigade.
The dome with its complex geometry is an exceptional piece of engineering, necessary to provide an uninterrupted space for trading and indirect sunlight for merchants to judge the quality of grain accurately. The roof-ribs are riveted wrought iron, overlaid with timber and slate, springing from opposite sides of the ellipse.
Because of its excellent connections by waterways and railways, Leeds became an important centre for dealing in grain and flour, and in 1901 the Corn Exchange had 160 regular traders, including thirty from Hull and nine from Liverpool. The area around the Exchange became crowded with warehouses and flour mills, and across the city there were larger roller mills and manufacturers of milling machinery.
Tuesday was the regular day for corn trading, and a leather market began in 1903. The building was at various times used for farmers’ markets, and for dog, cat, mouse and bird shows. In 1969 two hundred traders met weekly to do business on Tuesdays between 10.00am and 2.00pm.
If Colin Buchanan’s 1973 road-building proposals had been fully implemented the Corn Exchange would have been demolished. In the same year the Leeds Civic Trust proposed converting it to a concert hall, but the tenants objected strongly and the idea was dropped. Instead, the building was left to deteriorate in increasingly shabby surroundings for the following fifteen years.
Eventually, in 1988, Leeds City Council awarded a 999-year lease to Speciality Shops PLC with permission to convert the Corn Exchange to a high-end shopping centre, respecting the integrity of Cuthbert Brodrick’s design and continuing to accommodate the twenty-five remaining corn-traders. It reopened to the public in 1990.
The ground floor trading area was opened up so that the basement became integral to the domed space above, connected by staircases with bannisters that exactly reproduced the original railings.
A small number of corn traders continued to meet, using their original stalls, until around 1994.
The lease was transferred in 2005 to Zurich Assurance, which embarked on a £1.5 million refurbishment which required the eviction of the existing tenants for work to take place. The Corn Exchange reopened in 2007, as “a boutique shopping centre for independent retailers”, now under the auspices of the property company Rushbond, which acquired the lease in 2017.