It’s 85 years since Sheffield Central Library opened, and it is showing its age.
The building was described as an ‘up-to-date wonder’ when it opened its doors in 1934. Its origins went back to 1853 when the city opened its first public library, the same year that the Libraries Act was adopted. The original library started in two small rooms in the Mechanics Institute, from which it grew until the whole of the building was required. There was a further development in 1910, when the Old Music Hall was purchased to start a lending library and reading room.
The site was a fitting one for a library because for 150 years it had been used by cultural, musical and educational bodies, scientific institutions and local trades. The land was formerly in the ownership of Henry Tudor, who built a house and silver plating works surrounded by an extensive garden about the middle of the 18th century. On his death, the estate was split up, part of it to the shareholders of the Music Hall. part of the land used to build a school and the house taken over by the Mechanics Institute.
After demolition, work on the new Central Library began in 1929, to a design by W.G. Davies, built with Portland stone around a steel frame, in Art Deco style, and opened in 1934 by the Duchess of York (later the Queen Mother).
The idea was conceived as part of a plan by Patrick Abercrombie to create a civic square. It never materialised, although Tudor Square (named after Henry Tudor) was created alongside in 1991.
The Libraries, Art Galleries and Museums Committee had to spend their entire annual budget of £2,650 on stocking the new library. The total cost of the project was £95,000, including £10,000 from local mail order entrepreneur and philanthropist, J.G. Graves, who also contributed £20,000 for the Graves Art Gallery on the top floor, as well as his art collection.
In the Second World War, a bomb fell on Fitzalan Square nearby and the aftershock caused the library foyer’s marble floor to crack. The crack is still visible today and runs almost the full length of the foyer.
Do we still appreciate the 85-year-old lady?
Probably not. In 2017, Sheffield City Council, horrified at the cost of extensive repairs, announced plans to sell the building to a Chinese developer, which proposed converting the library into a hotel. Thankfully the deal never got off the ground.