The Corn Exchange
Of all the studies included in our project, perhaps the Corn Exchange represents the best example of a structure able to adapt. Originally built to house corn dealers and merchants in the mid- 19th century, the Exchange is now an upmarket ‘independent fashion outlet’, having previously been used to house ‘alternative’ fashion stores, record and vintage sales, animal shows, leather markets and a war memorial. Following the decline in agriculture the Exchange was used much less frequently by corn dealers and even faced demolition in the mid-20th century, but following renovations and more than a little controversy the future seems bright for the Leeds landmark.
The original Corn Exchange, built in 1827, was situated at the north end of Briggate; as well as the space for merchants t0 buy corn by sample, the building also housed offices, a hotel, a tavern and 4 large shops.
The industrial boom of the early 19th century saw Leeds prosper; the rate of change at this time is perhaps demonstrated by the fact that many of the buildings which existed in 1860 had been demolished by 1914. The White Cloth Hall, used for the sale of white cloth and a symbol of the burgeoning textiles industry, was demolished in 1865 to allow for an extension of the railway, and replaced with a much smaller hall which itself was demolished in 1895; the Commercial Buildings, the focal point of commerce and a meeting-place of merchants and businessmen, were demolished and rebuilt in 1871-5; meanwhile, as is covered elsewhere on the blog, the market amenities were undergoing significant change.
The old Corn Exchange was no exception: by the 1850s, the old building already seemed out of place- it was too small, ‘insufficiently grand’, and the corn factors (dealers) were said to be the most neglected of all Leeds traders. Although still an important sector of Yorkshire’s economy, agriculture had by this time become largely overshadowed within Leeds by the booming textiles industry, which by 1851 employed 34% of Leeds’ workforce compared with 1.3% in agriculture (although, of course, the rural farmers would not have been counted). Nevertheless, following petitions from local corn dealers and merchants, the council agreed to erect a new purpose-built corn exchange, and held a competition to decide its architect.
The winning entry was submitted by Cuthbert Brodrick- the architect behind Leeds’ Town Hall of 1858. The design was partially inspired by continental architecture: the exterior stones, carved to a fine point, from the __; the glass domed roof from Paris’ Halle au Blé. The main difference between Brodrick’s design and its continental inspirations was the size of the basement, designed to allow the passage of horses and carts, but used initially as the HQ of the fire brigade.
The roof was particularly interesting: nicknamed ‘the balloon’, the 75-foot high dome was designed to allow the maximum amount of light to enter the building, while avoiding direct sunlight to hit the corn which would have made it appear a different colour. For this reason and to utilise all the space available, the building is elliptical, although it appears circular from the outside.
One visitor noted at the time:
No roof that it has been our fortune to see has ever impressed us more than this one, as a work of genius and thorough practical utility.
A watercolour by Brodrick submitted as part of his entry can be seen on the Royal Institute of British Architects’ website.
The building is estimated to have cost £26,000 (although some sources claim £32,000); the old building had cost £12,500 just 34 years earlier. The impressive structure served as a reminder that although a hive of industry, Leeds still stood as a major centre for marketing agricultural produce.
The continuing success of the agricultural industry meant that the Exchange continued to be used for trade 6 days a week into the early 20th century, and the building had also found other uses- as a war memorial in 1925, for leather markets, and for dog and cat, mouse, and bird shows.
2 merchants’ signs, shortly before the 1988-90 renovations. The stalls themselves are part of the original furniture, having been designed by Brodrick himself.
In 1963 the civil engineer and town planner Colin Buchanan published a report commissioned by the Minister of Transport entitled Traffic in Towns, which considered the issues of traffic congestion in several urban areas including Leeds. Buchanan’s suggestions for Leeds included the building of 4 main roads encircling a (mostly pedestrianised) city centre, one of which might require the levelling of the Corn Exchange. Fortunately, the slow-moving planning process and the need for more short-term solutions to the worsening congestion problem in the city centre meant that many of Buchanan’s suggestions were not followed, but the fact that they were considered by the council perhaps demonstrates the dire straits the Corn Exchange found itself in by the 1960s. By 1969,it only opened to corn traders 1 day a week- Tuesdays, 10am-2pm, during which time some 200 traders filled the floor.
In July 1973 plans drawn up by the Civic Society and Leeds Corporation to convert the Exchange into a concert hall and auditorium were approved in principle; however, protests by the tenants of the Exchange in November contributed to the plans being dropped. The building continued to decline, situated as it was in a particularly run-down area of Leeds- relative to the prospering nearby Victoria Quarter.
In 1986 in a study published under the title ‘Leeds: A Lost Opportunity?’, which assessed the current state and future prospects of several Leeds buildings now fallen into disrepair, the fate of the Exchange was lamented but the author suggested that rather than extensive renovations which might destroy the building’s character, it would be best left as is, a forgotten masterpiece. However, shortly after this renovations would be carried out, but in a way whihc essentially preserved the features of the Exchange.
In 1985, the contract on the building was leased out to Specialist Shops, with plans to transform the Exchange into a shopping centre. Following extensive refurbishments which included the addition of a staircase connecting the ground and first floors and the opening up of the basement, the Corn Exchange opened on 28th July 1990.
With its mix of boutique shops and market stalls, [the Corn Exchange] helped spark Leeds’s modern day renaissance as a major capital for culture and shopping.
a myriad of little boutiques like Ark Clothing and Eva, a few cafes and market stalls, often called the ‘Covent Garden of the North’.
With several independent shops in the Exchange catering for ‘alternative’ subcultures- in contrast to the chain stores of Briggate and the Headrow and the upmarket Victoria Quarter- the steps outside became a notorious hangout spot for ’emo’ and ‘goth’ teenagers. Reported in local media as ‘gangs’ of ‘youths and children’, they were blamed by shop owners in the Exchange for drops in sales of up to 40%, and the closure or relocation of at least 1 shop.
Newspaper articles from 2007 trace the next chapter in the story of the Corn Exchange. Zurich Assurance bought the lease in 2005 in a deal lasting at least 100 years:
New owners Zurich assurance are investing £1.5m in the refurbishment and tenants are worried they could be priced out… That must not be allowed to happen. Leeds has seen its fair share of designer stores… There has to be a place in our city for shops that cater to other sections of society…
[Yorkshire Evening Post, 26 March 2007]
The Exchange remained open to the public during the renovations.
Traders in Leeds’s Corn Exchange say a £1.5m restoration could put them out of business. There are now around 14 empty units and three more set to close… the number of shoppers has nosedived by up to 65 per cent…
Some tenants accuse owners Zurich Assurance of… allowing the building to fall into disrepair… A [Zurich] spokeswoman said: “the landlord is not forcibly putting any tenants out of business…”
[Yorkshire Evening Post, 29 June 2007]
Traders hit out after being told they must quit the Corn Exchange in Leeds so it can be turned into an upmarket food emporium…The independent shop owners were told the centre had become “unviable.”…
The shops’ responses:
“It’s such a sudden thing”…”We didn’t know exactly what was happening, but we knew they didn’t want us here.”…”We’d been told it was going to be a shopping centre and the work was being done to make it better.”
The response of Phoenix Beard, managing the project:
“…if the tenants want to stay then they can do so. At no stage has Zurich lied or acted irresponsibly on this”
[Yorkshire Evening Post, 21 November 2007]
Stallholders at Leeds’ Corn Exchange have been… told “don’t come back for Christmas”… They can no longer operate in the Corn Exchange. They are turning it into an upmarket food emporium.”
[Yorkshire Evening Post, 22 November 2007]
On 4th June 2008, it was announced that the basement level would become home to Piazza by Anthony- a restaurant and private lounge run by chef Anthony Flynn. The economic downturn around this time can perhaps be blamed the fact that the other units remained empty; it would be 2 years before the more shops began to move into the Exchange, now being marketed once more as an ‘independent fashion outlet’.
The Corn Exchange is currently home to several independent fashion stores; the current manager has disclosed that 6 more units will be filled in the coming weeks, and argues- with some justification- that in the economic climate this interest from independent business is perhaps a small miracle.
There are a range of independent businesses currently at the Corn Exchange, ranging from fashion stores, jewellers, Italian shoe shop, homewares, canvas printing, vintage clothes shops, acoustic guitar show, barbers, beauty, fashion accessories, 2 cafes and a restaurant. Each business is very individual and in my opinion that is what the ethos of the Corn Exchange is.
the future is all about maintaining and looking after the iconic beautiful building as it approaches is 150th year of trading…
Critics of the recent transformation of the Exchange have pointed out that this apparent U-turn could and should have been avoided by keeping the building as it was- that the current tenants can simply afford to pay higher rent; some have accused Zurich Assurance of allowing the building to fall into disrepair to justify the changes. The point has been made that gentrification in Leeds- that is, the displacement of existing shops and business with others with a more ‘high-class’ fare- is challenging the traditional perception of Leeds as an typical Northern industrial city. Should this be considered a positive change, or should preserving the heritage of the city be prioritised?
Who should control how the Exchange is used? Following the re-opening in 1990 the Council published tourism leaflets extolling the building’s architecture and the boutique shops to be found inside; following its 2007 renovations it gave the impression it had no say in how the Exchange was run or marketed. The former tenants felt that they had no control, talking of it being the decision of Zurich alone. Protests led by university lecturers and students and local young people and activists, alongside petitions and online blog and facebook campaigns, made little difference- in comparison with the traders’ protests in 1974, which contributed to auditorium plans being dropped. The question arises: who should have a say in how the space is used- the council or the leaseholders? The tenants, the public, the ‘youths’ who used it as a hangout spot?
Leeds’ transformation from an industrial to a commercially-driven city has necessitated the change in use of several structures and businesses in Leeds; while some have fallen into decline or disappeared altogether, the Corn Exchange- against the odds, it would seem- has survived. Has it lost its charm, its position as ‘symbol of working class toil’? Were the recent changes necessary for the Exchange to survive, or were the new leaseholders simply trying to attract higher rents?
Laying subjectivity aside, the Exchange exists today as a retail outlet beginning to see recovery and success. Architecturally, little has been changed save for the addition of the staircase and opening of the basement; those qualities which won Brodrick the award 150 years ago remain.
It has had different uses over time, and manages to evolve along with the city. It is “alive”, and has people and noise and laughter in it, not just the bricks and mortar.
[Yorkshire Evening Post, 19 November 2009]
- Burt, Steven & Kevin Grady, The Illustrated History of Leeds (Derby: Breedon, 2002)
- Fraser, Derek, A History of Modern Leeds (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1980)
- Leeds’ Local and Family History Library houses local newspapers on microfilm dating back to the 18th century; 19th century issues of Leeds Mercury are available in digitised format from the British Library here (for a subscription; free to students or within British Library buildings).
The Corn Exchange/Cuthbert Brodrick
- Linstrum, Derek, Towers and Colonnades: the architecture of Cuthbert Brodrick (Leeds: Leeds Philosophical and Literary Society, 1999)