Hidden Nature, Hidden History: Playhouse Gardens

This article forms part of our Heritage Open Day 2020 programme, specifically our Leeds City Centre Hidden Nature, Hidden History heritage trail. Click to see all the points on the trail and to read the accompanying articles…

Between the newly built Leeds City College and the Leeds Playhouse extension you will find a triangular shaped one acre terraced garden, this fully accessible garden sits upon land with a history dating back to the 1600s when the bubonic plague hit Leeds, Huts were built on Quarry Hill, then a good distance outside the city’s boundary, and used to quarantine the infected.

A century and a half later the site became a spa with people visiting to take the waters from the local Sheepscar Beck, Spaw Well, Lady Well and St Peter’s Well.

Infectious diseases returned during the mid-1830s with the growth of cramped slum housing leading to outbreaks of cholera, by the end of the Victorian period the site was cleared and ready for redevelopment into the UK’s largest social housing experiment of the 1930s.

Quarry Hill flats began in 1938, the aim was to house over 3000 people on a 10.5 acre site in state of the art flats built to a modernist design.  Unfortunately the flats stood for less than 40 years as a string of problems including expensive repairs, poor waste disposal and structural problems led to their demolition, 1975-78.

The site was redeveloped and in 1990 it became home to the £13.5million West Yorkshire Playhouse, the WYP replaced the Leeds Playhouse a community based repertory Theatre Company founded in 1970, formerly based in the grounds of Leeds University.  In 2019 the WYP was revamped again with a new frontage added facing the bus station and reversion back to its original name of the Leeds Playhouse.

Today the bottom of the lawned gardens with planted beds and trees stands where the iconic arched entrance to Oastler house once stood, the garden a gateway to Leeds Cultural District, an area that is home to Phoenix Dance, the Northern Ballet, Yorkshire Dance, BBC North and the City of Leeds College of Music.

Next: Walk along St Peter’s St towards the viaduct, on your left you will pass a small garden at St Peter’s Square with a sculpture by artist Walter Jack of a stainless steel theatre curtain representing the performing arts present in this area. Cross over towards York Street and opposite you will see the first part of Penny Pocket Park

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