Monday, 26 September 2011

_heritage open days - the portico library

Sign above Charlotte Street entrance

view from the corner of moseley street and charlotte street

border on the inside of the entrance staircase

The 11th of September saw the Portico Library open to the general public as part of English Heritage's Heritage Open Days events so I thought I would meander across town to see inside this hidden gem of Manchester's built history.

Designed by Thomas Harrison and completed in 1806 it was the first Greek Revival building in Manchester and one of the first in the country, long before the trend for this movement was established elsewhere. Comissioned by two prominent businessmen of the time, Robert Robinson and Michael Ward, it is thought Harrison was chosen after the businessmen visited his Lyceum Library in Liverpool and decided that Manchester deserved a building of the same calibre.

The library is located within the upper gallery of the building (the ground floor currently occupied by a pub) with entry on Charlotte Street via a very unassumming entrance, in stark contrast to the entrance for the public house which is accessed through a portico of  giant Ionic columns, said to be similar to the Temple of Athena Polias at Priene.

After climbing what feels like a back-of-housae staircase rather than a staircase meant for users of  the library you enter a space which does not feel right in terms of its proportions as the ceiling feels too low for the size of the space that it covers. This sensation can be explained by the fact that the building in it's current state is not as it was originally designed; the library originally utilised the space currently occupied by the pub as a newsroom where members could read newspapers from both Manchester, London as well as further afield.

This space was lit from above by the dome as per the photograph below, taken from the Manchester Local Image Collection, spanning what would have been a grand space for its esteemed members to read of trade and news from around the world. Before the occupation of the pub the library's ground floor tenant was the Bank of Athens with the bank's tenancy of the building still facilitating the retention of the gallery and dome in it's original condition.

newsroom, 1910, courtesy of the Manchester Local Image Collection

'filling in' of gallery space on left 

Although the proportions of the gallery space have altered significantly and been subsequently compromised the current layout does allow for the viewing of the dome in a way not previously possible. The dome is beautiful as an object; a saucer dome said to be based on the same proportions of that of Sir John Soane's family tomb which Sir Giles Gilbert Scott in turn used for the K2 telephone box, punched with glazed lights which are supported by segemented barrel vaults at each end and by segmental arches at the sides.

On the west face of the interior arch of the dome is the clock famously maintained by John Dalton during his membership in exchange for the library waiving his membership fee while on the east face is what appears to be another clock face until closer inspection reveals a working wind vane. (see video below)

Sir John Soane Family Tomb

K2 Telephone Kiosk


The library, as expected for a library of its age, contains some wonderful looking titles assembled into sections such as 'voyages and travels', 'history', 'biographies' as well as 'polite literature' (which has two walls dedicated to it's subject instead of the normal one). These subjects would allow members to educate themselves on not only the news of the day, but of societies from afar, important when these members would be trading with and in countries from around the world.

bust of Thomas Harrison

reading room, 1938, courtesy of the Manchester Local Image Collection
modern 'intervention'

The building is now, as was originally intended, a proprietary library, owned by its members, the number of whom has never been allowed to total more than 400 and it seems that it is for this reason that the unsympathetic tenancy of the ground floor and subsequent building alterations has occurred. A building of such age and grandeur must incur substantial costs to maintain and operate but it still seems a great shame to have a tenancy of this type in the ground floor of a building of this significance to Manchester.

This private membership does not however mean that you can't visit the library and I would strongly recommend the pressing of the doorbell on Charlotte Street for entry into this unique and fantastic bit of Manchester's history.


manchester, an architectural history; parkinson-bailey, jj - manchester university press

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