This is a historically important structure and symbolic of changes in British society since it was built. Today, Lee Circle car park appears totally unremarkable to the casual observer, but the Tesco store and car park that opened there in in 1961 was a pioneering experiment, noteworthy for many reasons.
A crowd of more than 2,000 turned up to see Sid James, star of the Carry On films, open the store in 1961. The 24,000 sq ft supermarket, built at a cost of PS750,00, was the chain's first expansion outside the Home Counties. It earned a place in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest store in Europe. Combining a supermarket and a homewares store, with the six-tier Auto-Magic multi-storey car park above providing space for 1050 cars, this was an entirely new retail format in the UK. The opening of the store marked the beginning of self-service shopping in the UK: for the first time, customers could browse alone, filling their own baskets or trolleys. The store and car park were integrated so that staff could take customers' purchases directly to their cars. The car park was the first in Europe to be fully automated using coin-operated barriers. Customers refuelled at the forecourt petrol station and used the (also automated) car wash. This was shockingly modern stuff for 1961 but it would become the norm over the next decade. It also illustrates the extent to which the car was prioritized in British town planning at the time, which would be a key factor in Lee Circle's eventual decline.
Details of the architect are elusive, but Lee Circle's double-helix design (where cars ascend on one spiral ramp and descend on another, so they never meet) shows they were probably inspired by the Fiat Lingotto factory, designed by naval engineer and architect Giacomo Matte-Trucco in 1923. Lee Circle certainly presents a flowing maritime profile, like Streamline Moderne stripped down to the bones. The efficiency of its double helix design meant that even at the peak of its popularity in the mid -1960s, queues were rare. The same cannot be said for car parks using the grid system.
The complex also housed a bowling alley which featured in Ray Gosling's 1964 film 'Two Town Mad' (comparing Leicester and Nottingham), illustrating Leicester's status as a truly modern city. The Tesco store closed in the early 80s (today the unit is occupied by a fabric wholesaler) but the car park remains, its concrete weathered and patched. It is still open but under-used: shoppers were drawn back to the historic centre of Leicester by the Haymarket Shopping Centre (1973) and the Shires Centre (1991), both of which offered parking, and importantly, convenient access to newly pedestrianised shopping streets. The nearby county court and benefits office closed in 2007, reducing demand for parking further. The future of Lee Circle is under threat. Its opening was probably the heyday of this underdeveloped quarter of Leicester, where Joseph Merrick, the "Elephant Man", was born a hundred years before the car park.