Arts Tower

For fifty-five years, the University of Sheffield’s Arts Tower has dominated the Sheffield skyline.

This was once the city’s tallest building at 78metres, built in a commanding position on high ground, eventually eclipsed by St. Paul’s Tower in 2011.

A Building for Arts was first discussed in 1953, with designs submitted by architects Gollins, Melvin, Ward and Partners, and it went through several radical changes before the University’s planning group chose a “cube of steel, glass and concrete.”

Thirteen storeys were originally planned, with six more added, including two floors in which additional funding had to be found because the University Grants Committee refused to underwrite it.

“Every time the planning group for the building met, the height went up by two storeys.”

It finally reached nineteen storeys (although a further two can be found underground) and became the tallest university building in the country.

Construction started in 1961, the foundations built on solid rock thirty feet beneath the surface and was topped-out in October 1964.

The University moved in during the summer of 1965, with accommodation for 18 departments and 160 staff. The Architecture Department occupied the top floors (as it still does), because “it gave them a very good view over Sheffield to see all the town planning that was going on.”

The Arts Tower was officially opened by the Queen Mother in June 1966, where she was made an honorary Doctor of Music, and memorably described the structure as “the tower of light and learning.”

The tower was built with a concrete frame, exposed at ground level by sixteen columns, and sheathed with glass-curtain walling, long being subject of speculation that it was based on the Seagram Building in New York City, as well as the CIS Tower and New Century House in Manchester, although no documentary evidence supports any of these theories.

It was connected at first-floor level with the Library (built 1955-1959) and originally had a wide bridge between fountains over a shallow pool in front of the building, but this was drained and covered over due to strong down-drafts, resulting in people getting soaked when entering and leaving the building.

In 2009, the Arts Tower underwent major renovation, the interiors being reorganised, and a new façade added.

Being as tall as it is, stories have persisted about the tower’s sway in strong winds – this turns out to be true, reported as being “slight but measurable” on windy days.

And, of course, we cannot fail to mention the famous Paternoster lift, subject to a separate post.

“Like the big wheel in a fairground,” this was a revolutionary solution to save space (there was only room for four lift shafts), designed to speed up movement of students and staff between floors.

Thirty-eight cars continuously circulate allowing people to step on and off at each level and is now said to be the largest surviving Paternoster lift still in use in the UK.