I joined a tour of Temple Works last week to see around the amazing structure that once boasted the largest room in the world.
Temple Works is the strange Egyptian looking building on Marshall Street in Holbeck. It was built as a flax mill and was state-of-the-art in 1840. At the end of the twentieth century it was used as a warehouse by Kays Catalogue. It is in a precarious state, but a full restoration of the building now looks within touching distance.
The building is currently being managed by Temple Works Leeds and used by artists and film makers looking for atmospheric locations. Apparently it’s a big hit for zombie movies. It also hosts arts events and concerts.
I have known of the building for twenty years and taken friends and relations down to Holbeck to look at it from the outside. The architectural fashion at the time was to copy classical buildings and so the façade is a replica of the Temple of Edfu in Egypt. When I saw that The Culture Vulture was offering a tour inside, I leapt at the chance.
Temple Works was built by mill owner and MP John Marshall. He had already built Marshall’s Mill next door (now converted into offices), but there were safety concerns about multi storey mills – it was not uncommon for mills to catch fire and the workers on upper floors to perish.
Temple Works would be different, it was built on one floor. In an age before electricity it featured large roof lights that let in natural light. The roof was covered in grass to maintain a level of humidity that would make the flax easier to work. In order to manage the grass, sheep were grazed on the roof. As the first winter approached they discovered that sheep can be encouraged to climb stairs, but not to go down stairs. So Temple Works also features the world’s first sheep lift!
The building also had a undercroft – school and nursery for the workers children, a doctor on site as well as the engines to keep the looms running were all housed underground.
The building is in a delicate position. Its revolutionary design relied on the compression caused by the weight of the roof. This proofed to be insufficient and there were collapses during construction, so metal tensioning rods were added. These were made from cast iron, state-of-the-art at the time, but not a material you would choose today. When one of these snapped in December 2008 it caused one of the pillars to collapse. The ‘pillars’ in the large room are not holding the roof up, they are disguising the downpipes draining water from the roof. Again made out of cast iron, if the paint chips off they will rust away.
Restoration works will return the Grade I listed building to how it looked in its heyday. Temple Works Leeds plan for this magical space to become Leeds’ version of the Turbine Hall at Tate Britain in London, able to host the biggest artworks. That’s something I’m definitely looking forward to.