Architects and designers between the wars paid less attention to health and safety than we nowadays expect, as I discovered when I missed a step at the entrance to Sheffield’s Central Library and ruptured a tendon.
I’ve examined the architecture of this splendid building from the cold pavement while waiting for an ambulance to arrive. Descriptions of its style vary – beaux-arts, Art Deco, neo-Georgian: from the ground it’s clearly eclectic, with fine crisp Classical and Egyptian details in Portland stone.
The Central Library, which includes the separately funded Graves Art Gallery on the top floor, was designed in 1929 by the City Architect, W G Davies, in collaboration with the City Librarian, Joseph Lamb. It’s obvious that an extension was intended: the glazed brick east wall would have formed an internal light-well but for the construction of the 1960s Arundel Gate dual carriageway.
The Library was intended as a keynote building in a civic square as part of Sir Patrick Abercrombie’s 1924 development plan for the city centre. In fact, it was the only part of this scheme to be completed, like Birmingham’s incomplete Civic Centre on Broad Street, where the Hall of Memory (1923-24) and the hurriedly completed Baskerville House (1938-39) have been absorbed into later planning schemes.
There was doubt that Sheffield City Council could scrape together the funds to replace the previous lamentable library building on the same site, until the mail-order pioneer and civic benefactor John George Graves (1866-1945) offered £30,000 to lay out the top floor as an art gallery, to which he donated part of his personal art collection.
The exterior is embellished with carvings by the ubiquitous Sheffield firm Frank Tory & Sons – in this case Frank’s identical twin sons, Alfred (1881-1971) and William (1881-1968).
Within, despite years of neglect, much of the marble flooring, coffered ceilings, wood panelling and door furniture and the magnificent marble staircase rising through the building remain intact, waiting for sympathetic restoration: https://manchesterhistory.net/architecture/1930/library.html.
The completed building was opened in July 1934 by HRH the Duchess of York, later HM Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Her husband, then known as Prince Albert, was ill at the time, and the Duchess took his place.
The Central Library came into its own during the Blitz. It was relatively unscathed in comparison with buildings in the surrounding streets, and was quickly deployed as a refuge providing information and support for the tens of thousands of Sheffield citizens who were rendered homeless by the bombing.
After the War Sheffield City Libraries gained a high reputation for innovation and for the breadth of the collections and the generosity of provision.
In recent decades services, staffing and opening times have been repeatedly cut, yet the Library still offers users facilities that are simply unavailable online.
It’s sad to see Mr Davies’ splendid rooms defaced by peeling plaster and faded paintwork, and I for one would approve of a recent scheme to turn the Central Library into a five-star hotel.
The admirably-timed Library of Birmingham (2013), opened in a more favourable financial climate and so far surviving subsequent cuts, is an example of the physical information resource that a modern city needs.
And when Sheffield removes its library from the 1934 building, I hope they’ll provide safer entrance steps in the new location.