The Tang Hall Branch Library, formally opened on 29 November 1962 by the Lord Mayor, Alderman R. A. Cattle, was a monument to an epoch. The architecture of the library was symbolic of the modernising ambition of the post-war York City Architect’s Department under Ernest Firth. It was the first public building designed by Firth and it was the first in a constellation of local branch libraries erected around the UK in the post-war era. The plans were belatedly published under the name of Heworth Branch Library in Perspective: East Yorkshire after its opening (May/June 1964).1
Tang Hall is the suburban residential district comprising the earliest of the City of York Corporation’s housing schemes.2 It was early in the 1940s that the Library Committee included a branch library in Tang Hall in their post-war development plan to join the current library network of the Central Library in Museum Street (Walter Brierley, 1927), Dringhouses Library (c. 1850), and the Acomb Library, a collection of books stored in the Meeting House of the Society of Friends in Acomb.3 However, it was not until 1957 that the plan could proceed upon an agreement with the Public Health Committee to build a library to join the proposed Health Centre in Fifth Avenue.4 It was the first purpose-built branch library in York and was followed by an extension of Dringhouses Library’s nineteenth-century village school building in 1964 and, in 1969, another purpose-built branch library in Acomb to replace the temporary construction built in 1950.
The Tang Hall Branch Library was one of the earliest examples of the “housing-estate” branch libraries in the UK. Although there were limited examples in Europe, such as Werner Düttmann’s Hansabibliothek (1959) in the rebuilt living area of Hansa, Berlin, the concept had not been experimented with in the UK.5 According to Alistair Black, a large number of branch libraries in the 1960s were built in, or adjacent to, the housing estates developed between the wars.6 Black also noted that many of the branch libraries were constructed “in complexes or compact areas that housed other institutions of the welfare state” despite the common advice of placing libraries in shopping centres to ensure constant community exposure.7 By 1957, Tang Hall was a large built area that primarily consisted of council housing erected in the 1920s and 30s. The chosen site was a cloistered area in a compact neighbourhood with existing houses, interlinking the community’s main road with the signature cycling track of Tang Hall. It was not considered the ideal location for a library; however it was the only option they had.8
The Tang Hall Branch Library was a two-storey low-rise building of part steel framed and part load bearing brick construction. The facings of the building were modest or unostentatious, constructed with calmly toned brickwork, effortlessly merging the library into the community atmosphere. The front entrance was accompanied by a display unit specially designed by the City Architect to signal the building’s function.9 No matter during day or night, the glass frontage that covered the entrance hall, the staircase, and the landing area on the first floor could give the building an airy, bright, and accessible presence. Upon entering the space, the visitors would be greeted by a hallway decorated with geometric wallpapers and, in the centre, a service desk meticulously designed by Firth, all entailing its modern character. In the two major reading rooms were flexible furniture with light steel frames and fixed shelving made of Japanese oak, bringing a sense not only of modernity but homeliness. Both the adult lending department on the ground floor and the children’s library upstairs were generously lit by natural and fluorescent lighting. The inner space of Tang Hall was relaxed but functional.
The functionalism borne by the City Architect signals a sound division with both York’s few existing public library buildings and the old scheme of pre-war library designs. The Tang Hall Branch Library was well-considered and pioneering; only in the late 1960s, modernist branch library buildings started to be erected around the UK. The (former) Seacroft Branch Library (Leeds City Architect’s Department (E. Weston Stanley, City Architect)), Leeds, a building that is slightly better known, was not opened until 1964 (published in The Builder (December 1964)).10 However, there were comparatively many built in urban local authorities while often at a larger scale. One significant example that might have influenced Firth is the Holborn Central Library by the Holborn Borough Architect’s Department under Sydney A. G. Cook (published in the Architect’s Journal (August 1956)). The building was seen by Elain Harwood as the opening chapter of the architectural design of British post-war libraries.11 In a lecture to the Library Association, Cook stressed the importance of natural lighting and flexible fittings in library spaces.12 Cook presented his modernity in a Georgian street setting through a lending library predominantly of glazed screens. In Libraries of Light (2019), Black regularly uses “Scandinavian” to describe such functionalist minimal design. While Firth was confronted with a significantly more confined setting, the architectural principles of making the space open and inviting could be the same.
As the Holborn design needed to overcome the traditional image of British library architecture, with the Tang Hall as the first piece of public architecture he designed, what Firth’s Architect’s Department needed to counter was the prolonged query of modernising the historic city of York. The vision of modern York had been shaped by the York civic dignitary John Bowes Morrell or to some extent confined by his romanticising story of the city’s history.13 Firth’s predecessor, Charles John Minter, seemed to have been architecturally conservative when drawing York’s first post-war plan with architects Stanley Davenport Adshead and Charles William Cashmore Needham.14 In the introduction to the May/June 1964 edition of Perspective: East Yorkshire, matters were raised about the prevalent uninspiring modern development in the city of York and the citizens’ indifference to the deteriorating situation.15 Certainly, York, like other British cities, was deserving of the conscious embrace of both its glorious past and its present. For the post-war York City Architect’s Department, this meant an architectural language, aside from its necessary and inevitable modern nature, nuanced to represent both the past and the future of York. In this regard, Tang Hall was an example among many.
After its closure in 2018, the building of the City Architect’s pioneering modernity is now sitting in its dereliction.16 On 15 November 2021, the City of York Council approved the demolition plan for the now Former Tang Hall Branch Library building in Fifth Avenue, confirming that the building, after serving the Tang Hall, Heworth, and the Greater York community for 56 years, is to be demolished in 2022-23. There was no objection from the local planning authority. The library service of Tang Hall is now continued by the new Tang Hall Explore Library on the site of the old Burnholme Secondary School (later Burnholme Community College) in 2018.
With thanks to Jane Burrows of the Tang Hall Local History Group; the Tang Hall Explore Library; and Phil Bixby of Constructive Individuals.