Spring Hill Library's Architecture
Joe Holyoak, Reader in Architecture at the University of Central England, wrote this appreciation of the Library in 1974.
Spring Hill Library was opened on January 7th 1893, thirty-two years after the opening of the city's first free library in Constitution Hill in 1861. It was designed by the Birmingham architects Martin and Chamberlain, who were responsible for a large number of public buildings in the city, including libraries, hospitals and all but one of the forty-four Board Schools then completed. Although built nine years after John Henry Chamberlain's death, Spring Hill Library shows the continuing influence on the firm of his capacity for bold three-dimensional planning and inventive use of gothic forms.
The site, on the corner of Spring Hill and Icknield Street, was a small one for the accommodation that was required. The exterior of the library reflects this fact with its very compact, tall, and steep appearance. It is constructed of red brick with much terracotta, with a red tiled roof. In place of the geometric robustness which characterised the buildings of Martin and Chamberlain during Chamberlain's lifetime, Spring Hill library has a smaller-scale, precise ornateness, whilst employing similar pointed gothic forms.
Boldly placed on the street corner is a 65 feet tower. A contemporary writer noted that the tower, with its four large clock-faces, was a landmark from all directions for a considerable distance around. The square tower gives way to a hexagonal section with miniature versions of itself clustered on the four corners, a characteristic motif of the towers of some of the Board Schools. There is a short pierced spire and a final sharp turret.
The tower is set back slightly from the two street elevations. The base is open on the two street sides, and underneath is an entrance porch; the entrance gains great prominence from its situation. The visitor passes into a small, dim vestibule, over which is the librarian's office. Beyond the vestibule is the staircase, which leads out of a corner of the reading room.
The reading room is a tall, four-bay, vaulted space, 48 feet by 43 feet, with a wide aisle running along one side, separated from the main space by circular granite columns. The beams supporting the roof are not exposed, as in the Board Schools, but are concealed behind timber and plaster coffering. On the opposite side of the aisle, the reading room is lit by four large pointed windows to Icknield Street, not placed centrally in the bays. They are leaded in simple naturalistic geometry, filled mainly with clear glass.
The staircase leads to a gallery above the ground floor aisle, which is enclosed by an arcade of pointed arches. The gallery, originally the lending library, was necessitated by the restricted site, but it is successfully exploited to create a vantage point for the tall, impressive space. Initially, another narrow gallery ran at right angles across the far end of the building, for the storage of books. In 1926, this was enlarged to fill the end bay, which resulted in a very unfortunate junction with the window. This window is now without its leadwork.
The ground floor, which was originally occupied by tables and chairs, has now had its function changed from reading room to lending library, and is filled with shelves. This undoubtedly hinders one's appreciation of space, but the loftiness of the room still impresses.
On the Icknield Street side, the two central windows are gathered together into a large gable, which has naturalistic terracotta reliefs and a large municipal coat of arms. There is a smaller gable each side, giving on to a steep tiled roof with pierced ridge tiles.
The Spring Hill elevation is narrower, and looks more compressed. The three elements of staircase, vestibule and tower are clearly expressed. The staircase, bounded by a shallow convex curve, has a gable of its own, which is rather awkwardly roofed in facets. The vestibule and the librarian's office are joined by two tall, narrow windows.
Following the demolition of its neighbours, Spring Hill Library stands alone on its corner site, exhibiting two blank brick walls. These look stark, but could quite easily be made acceptable.