A little bit of history and a lot of future.

When I first walked into the Carnegie Library in Wakefield almost 3 years ago it was cold, dark, damp, stripped of all its books, but not unloved. Though the staff and users had moved to new premises 12 months beforehand, they and other Wakefield residents held on to their fond memories and hoped the library would somehow be brought back into public use.

Today, following a £3M refurbishment, the building is officially re-opening in its new guise as 34 artists’ studios run by The Art House, Wakefield. The team that made this mighty transformation happen includes an award-winning brass bander, an illustrator, the star of a classic 1980s pop video, a burlesque artiste and a make-up guru. Only in the arts.

In February 2013 my job was to bring the Old Library back to life, guided by plans originally set out in 2011 that had stalled due to lack of funding.

Year one was spent mainly instilling belief that the project would happen, meeting Arts Council funding conditions, securing £1.5M from Europe and transferring the lease from Wakefield Council. Paperwork was involved. Meanwhile, the condition of the Grade II listed library was deteriorating as rain came in through the roof, the windows and the floors, pigeons made merry in the cupola and a tired and emotional citizen of Wakefield propped herself up against the stone balustrade. Both she and the stonework took a tumble.

The following 18+ months were spent mainly instilling belief that the project would happen (that’s a bit of a constant in capital projects), and procuring the contractors – the builders, the asbestos removers, the metal workers, the historic paint samplers. After which:

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18 layers of paint were stripped off the walls to reveal handmade arts & craft tile work.

The original cast iron radiators were blasted and fitted.

A lasagne of floor coverings was peeled back to reveal the original parquet flooring.

A ramshackle history of 20th century wiring was pulled out, along with pipes, conduits and phone sockets.

Historic paint schemes were agreed, disagreed, agreed again.

The weather vane was removed and restored.

Two buildings on slightly different levels became one.

The roof was re-leaded.

Pods and partitions were installed.

Lighting schemes were agreed, disagreed, agreed again.

People said you’ll never fill the studios.

New studio holders and office tenants moved in.

The project was completed – on time and on budget.

 

Was it worth it? A little bit of history and a lot of future.

 

Early postcard showing ill-fate stone balustrade

Early postcard showing ill-fated stone balustrade

Built in 1905, Wakefield’s library was one of 660 in the UK and Ireland made possible with assistance from the Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie. At the time it was criticized for its cost (£8,000 from Carnegie, plus a penny rate levied by the council) and its appearance (a ‘plain, barn looking building’).

The design had been put out to competition. Of 81 submissions, Surrey-based Trimmell, Cox and Davison won the contract. Their budget was based on London prices. Finding materials and labour much cheaper in Yorkshire, they were able to respond to the ‘barn’ criticism by creating a neo-Baroque style topped by a wooden cupola with leaded cap and an ornate iron weathervane.

The foundation stone was laid by lord mayor Henry Childe in February 1905. Carnegie himself – “just a quiet, well-dressed little man, with nothing in feature, figure or apparel to suggest any special distinction except his big head and large top hat” – formally opened the library in June 1906.

So that’s a bit of the history and one reason for preserving the building. The second reason is the people who will be using it.

“… A brilliant resource for Wakefield and Yorkshire. With leading facilities it can host national and international artists, provide a flexible and supportive workspace for visual artists and showcase the best of visual arts.” (Arts Council England, Feb 2014)

The Art House was established in 1994 by a group of artists with a vision to provide fully-accessible studio space, where disabled and non-disabled artists could work side by side. In 2008, The Art House ‘Phase 1’ building opened on Drury Lane in Wakefield, with exemplary access for people with physical and sensory disabilities.

Now, with the doubling of facilities provided through the Old Library project The Art House can continue to develop and work towards removing barriers for artists through residencies, professional development and mentoring and extending its remit through new activity challenging conventional approaches to diversity and the arts.

The opening, fittingly on the International Day of People with Disability, is an opportunity to show off the building. More importantly, it is a showcase for the work of a new creative community of artists who now have a base in the centre of Wakefield.

As the wonderfully committed project team would say, “You’re welcome.”

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