In the 1890s, the municipal government of Leeds was vigorously promoting a new civic identity for the city, especially after the town was granted city status in 1893. From 1878 to 1900, eight arcades were built in the city, five of which are still standing. The first, Thornton’s arcade (1), built in 1878, connected Briggate with Lands Lane and was designed by the architect George Smith for Charles Thornton, who owned the White Swan public house/hotel and a theatre in the hotel yard. In keeping with its theatrical focus, the arcade’s ornamentation is flamboyant and playful, with pointed arches, lancet windows and cast-iron Gothic roof, the arches pierced with geometric decoration and including truncated winged lions at their bases.
Leeds’ second arcade, the Queen’s arcade (2), was opened in July 1889, ran parallel the Thornton’s arcade and, like its predecessor, included a roof supported on ornamental cast-iron arches. Despite the privilege associated by its name and being privately financed by the joint owners of the new property, it was celebrated by The Leeds Mercury in language more commonly used to describe public buildings: a ‘credit to the town’, its ‘elegance and attractiveness’ replacing ‘old, filthy and unsightly buildings’. Part of the reason for this civic language lay in restrictions imposed on the design of the Queen’s arcade by the Leeds Corporation; they stipulated that houses be incorporated into the arcade above its roof. Thus, the arcade was both a commercial and residential space, reflected in the design of its interior, which included a gallery-level promenade disconnected from the shops below and lined with an ornamental cast-iron railing. An important aspect of the social life of late-Victorian industrial urban centres, the promenading of middle-class residents contributed to the reshaping of urban space in industrial towns and cities in Britain. In Leeds, promenading encompassed all the fashionable shopping streets and new arcades and served to reclaim the symbolic status of the streets from the working classes. Thus, the intervention of the municipal government in the design of the Queen’s arcade can be viewed as an attempt by them to expand the narrow commercial function of the building and to impose a symbolic identity that would link with the city as a whole, given added credence by the fact that the arcade was opened in a public, civic ceremony in July 1889.
Leeds’ final, largest and most elaborate arcades – the Cross and County arcades (3) – were built by the prolific theatre architect Frank Matcham for the Leeds Estate Company Ltd, formed in 1897 to redevelop the area between Briggate and Vicar Lane. Centred on the construction of the Empire Theatre, the new arcades were also a civic complex that included lavish ornamental embellishment: marble columns on the ground-floor, coloured mosaic frescoes representing the arts and sciences in the supporting pendentives of the three, galleried domes (4), a cast-iron balustraded gallery lined by a faience frieze of fruit (5), and ornamental cast-iron arches supporting the glass roof. This luxurious ornamentation was perceived by The Leeds Mercury as a necessary antidote to the ‘severely plain’ buildings of industrial Leeds, but it also reflected the more general transformation the city’s image by the municipal government, with its emphasis on monumental scale, the overt display of elevating ornament, and the creation of a hybrid space signifying both private and public luxury.