Monthly Archives: July 2017

Dedicated to all the gods

The Pantheon, Rome:  dome and oculus

The Pantheon, Rome: dome and oculus

Rome was the first foreign city I ever visited on my own, and among the many memorable sights and sites I remember being most astonished by the Pantheon, simply because it is by far the oldest Roman building that is not a ruin and is still in use.

Though the inscription on the pediment suggests it was built by Marcus Agrippa (64/62BC-12BC), the existing structure, apart from the façade, is in fact a rebuilding by the Emperor Hadrian (76AD-138AD) dating from 118AD-128AD.

The interior is a remarkable space, a cylinder surmounted by a coffered dome which rises to a circular oculus, open to the skies.  This is the only source of light – there are no windows – and when it rains the water drains away beneath the floor.

The proportions are mathematically exact:  the footprint forms a square in plan and elevation that equals the height of the oculus, 150 Roman feet (142 Imperial feet or 43.3 metres).  This means that a sphere 142 feet in diameter would fit exactly within the dome.

The name Pantheon indicates that this may have originally been a temple “dedicated to all the gods”.  It survived because in 609AD Pope Boniface IV converted it to a church dedicated to St Mary and the Martyrs.

It has remained a place of Christian worship ever since, and is the burial place of, among others, the painter Raphael (1483-1520), the composer Arcangelo Corelli (1653-1713) and two Italian monarchs, Victor Emmanuel II (1820-1878, king of Sardinia until 1861 and afterwards the first king of Italy) and his son and successor Umberto I (1844-1900).

Apart from its long history and survival, the Pantheon’s great significance is its influence on Western architecture.  Square – and sometimes circular – Classical buildings with cylindrical interiors and portico entrances are ubiquitous.

The great Italian architect Andrea Palladio produced variations on the theme, such as the church of Il Redentore (1577-92) in Venice, where he was obliged to lengthen the nave and, near Vicenza, his magnificent Villa Capra (designed 1566-7) and the Tempietto Barbaro (designed 1580).

Paris has its Panthéon, built as a church between 1758 and 1790.  There is a Pantheon in the garden at Stourhead, Wiltshire (1756).  The interior of the Marble Saloon at Stowe House, Buckinghamshire (1788) is directly based on the Roman original

Thomas Jefferson, whose own plantation house, Monticello (1772), echoes the Roman Pantheon, designed a more precise reproduction as the Rotunda library at the University of Virginia (1822-6) and his own memorial in Washington DC, designed by John Russell Pope in 1935, follows the same form.

Manchester’s Central Library, designed by Vincent Harris and built 1930-34, follows the same pattern.

There are many such buildings across the world, and they all refer back to the original in Rome.

Exploring Melbourne – William Wilkinson Wardell

St Mary's Roman Catholic Church, East St Kilda, Melbourne, Australia

St Mary’s Roman Catholic Church, East St Kilda, Melbourne, Australia

The architect William Wilkinson Wardell (1823-1899) is a classic example of the British expatriates who made their career in the growing cities of mid-nineteenth-century Australia.

A Londoner, born in Poplar, a Catholic convert and a pupil of the Gothic Revival architect A W N Pugin, he had designed or restored at least thirty English churches when at the age of thirty-five he and his family emigrated to Melbourne and he was appointed Government Architect.

As such he was responsible for the design of Government House (1871-6) in an Italianate style that hinted at Prince Albert’s Osborne House on the Isle of Wight.  He also designed the noble Gothic St Patrick’s Cathedral (1857-1897) and, later in his career, St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney (1868-1928).

In his private practice, which ran alongside his government work, he built the flamboyant ANZ Gothic Bank, Collins Street, Melbourne (1883-1887) and the Australasian Steam Navigation Co Building, The Rock, Sydney (1884).

Inevitably, his position in Melbourne’s government and Catholic circles meant that he built numerous parish churches, including St Mary’s Catholic Church, East St Kilda (1858), where Wardell and his family worshipped, and the magnificent St Ignatius’ Catholic Church, Richmond (begun 1867), both in the basalt bluestone characteristic of Victoria, quarried in north Melbourne.

William Wilkinson Wardell is an example of the pioneering English architects – others include the Southwark-born Edmund Blacket (1817-1883) and Ipswich-born Benjamin Backhouse (1829-1904) – who brought their expertise to Australia in the days before the new colonies could call on a generation of Australian-born architects.

Tootling a tune or two

Former Strand Cinema, Douglas, Isle of Man

Former Strand Cinema, Douglas, Isle of Man

Walking through the crowds of shoppers on Strand Street in Douglas, Isle of Man, I spotted an opportunity to photograph the surviving façade of the Strand Cinema.

My friend John, who’s lived on the island for over ten years, had never noticed it before but immediately clocked, from his intimate knowledge of Manx organs, that it was connected with a celebrated cinema organist, Dr George Tootell (1886-1969).

The Strand Cinema was one of seven Douglas cinemas that made their profits from the holiday trade rather than the permanent population.  It opened in 1913, and went over to bingo sometime in the late 1960s.

The Strand has an attractive white faience façade, and when the auditorium was demolished in 1998 the frontage was retained and restored.

Dr Tootell’s connection is interesting.  He had begun his professional career as a church organist and music master in schools in north-west England, and worked in North America launching and demonstrating new organs for the Wurlitzer Company.

He held successive posts as a resident organist in British cinemas and wrote an opinionated but practical manual for theatre organists, How to Play the Cinema Organ:  a practical book by a practical player (1927).

He had a particular connection with the Jardine organ-building company of Manchester [], who installed several instruments to his design when he was resident at the Palace Cinema, Accrington, and at the Kingsway and Stoll Picture Theatres in central London.

In Douglas, Jardines constructed the organ at St George’s parish church where Dr Tootell was resident organist.

It was not, it seems, one of their more fortunate pieces of work:  a Manx historian describes it as “a neatly packaged mountain of mechanism and pipework which was doomed as a musical instrument.” [].

The most ingenious feature of this installation was the side door which allowed Dr Tootell to leave St George’s before the end of the service to fulfil his contract to play at the Strand Cinema while his deputy played the final hymn and voluntary.

No-one seems to have raised the slightest objection – or indeed to have noticed – the unobtrusive way in which Dr Tootell contrived to bat for both sides.

Audubon Ballroom

Audubon Ballroom, Washington Heights, New York City

Audubon Ballroom, Washington Heights, New York City

A couple of years ago I revisited one of my earliest New York City experiences – taking the M4 bus from midtown Madison Avenue all the way to The Cloisters.

As the bus turned off Broadway into 165th Street I noticed on the street corner an elaborate building which I judged to have a cast-iron façade.

When I went back later, closer inspection showed that most of the elaborate external decoration is brightly coloured, crisply modelled faience.

The entrance is dominated by an elaborate relief of the prow of a ship, apparently representing Jason and the Argonauts, with an oversized figurehead depicting the god Neptune, and along the entire façade are the heads of brown foxes.

This was the Audubon Theater and Ballroom, built in 1912 by the greatest American theatre-architect of his day, Thomas W Lamb (1871–1942), for the film distributor William Fox (1879-1952), who later gave his name to the 20th Century Fox film studio.

The connection with Fox explains the foxes, but I’ve no idea why Neptune dominates the entrance nor, indeed, whether the building is named after the ornithologist John James Audubon (1785-1851).

The splendid auditorium seated 2,500 and was used for both film and vaudeville.  The basement was used as a synagogue, Emez Wozedek, from 1939 to 1983, and the second-floor ballroom became a venue for trade union and other political meetings as well as dances and dinners.

It was in the ballroom on February 21st 1965 that the human rights activist Malcolm X was assassinated at the age of 39:

After a foreclosure in 1967 the ballroom was used as a Hispanic cinema, the San Juan Theater, until 1980.

The building then became derelict and the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center took it over and proceeded to clear the site to make way for a purpose-designed medical research centre.

The Columbia project created controversy between advocates of regeneration in an area of deprivation and guardians of political and cultural heritage:  [ and]

It seems that the Audubon Theater and Ballroom is threaded into so much twentieth-century New York cultural and political history.  The erotic filmmaker Radley Metzger (1929-2017) had a strong affection for the Audobon Theater, and named his distribution company after it:

Political pressure from the Washington Heights community, and particularly from the family of Malcolm X, led by his widow, Dr Betty Shabazz, eventually ensured that half the ballroom and much of the façade were retained:

It’s an awkward compromise, that speaks of cultural conflicts that go back to the time of the civil rights campaigns that Malcolm X fought for.

His third-eldest daughter, Ilyasah Shabazz, remarked when her father’s memorial was opened in the building, “It’s hard for people to come back to a place where he was assassinated…But we’ve taken a tragic place and turned it into something beautiful.” [].

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture The Big Apple:  the architecture of New York City, please click here.


Zion Graveyard 1


There’s not a lot left of the vibrant community that existed in Sheffield’s Lower Don Valley until the late 1950s.  Two ancient structures – Carbrook Hall and Hill Top Chapel – survive from the seventeenth century.  There are some twentieth-century buildings, such as Banners Department Store and the former Adelphi Cinema.  Other, less prepossessing buildings have become significant simply because they survived – a number of banks and pubs, two Burton’s tailors, a chapel, a swimming baths and a library.

In a corner behind the remaining shops on Attercliffe Road is a historic discovery.

Parallel to the main road runs Zion Lane, a narrow alley still paved with bricks and stone setts.  It takes its name from the former Zion Congregational Church, a place of worship since 1793, the site ultimately occupied by a grand Romanesque chapel with a tower and spire, opened in 1863.

Inevitably, as the houses were cleared in the 1950s and 1960s the church became unsustainable. The building was sold in 1976 and the church became a furniture store until it burnt down in 1987 and was afterwards demolished.  The Zion Sabbath School across the lane survives as a motor-repair business.

Through all this, in the graveyard behind the church generations of Attercliffe people slept undisturbed.  I photographed it in 1977, and another photographer recorded it in 1994, when it still looked like a burial ground.  Eventually it became a jungle.

The graveyard still belongs to the United Reformed Church, which needs to divest itself of the responsibility.  A sharp-eyed member of the Friends of Wincobank Hill, an energetic conservation body operating a couple of miles away, spotted the sale notice, which led to the formation of the Friends of Zion Graveyard who have cleared sufficient clutter to reveal that this place is freighted with historic significance.

Among the graves so far uncovered and identified are Mark Oakes (died September 19, 1856) – assayer, refiner and crucible maker, John Pearson of Hall Carr House (died January 14th 1877) – whose daughter Martha was assistant organist to Zion Church, buried with his wife and sister in an elaborate grave marked with iron posts and railings, and Jonathan Wood (died October 20th 1848), – owner of Wood’s (or Bridge) Foundry, member of the Zion Church choir, and his wife Catherine Wood (died September 12th 1873) – buried with their two infant children in an tomb surrounded by iron railings that were once painted gold, and two other children with the same family names, aged one year and two months, close by.

Most important of all, the Friends have located the family vault of the Read family.

Joseph Read (1774-1837) established the Sheffield Smelting Company (which is still in operation as Thessco Ltd) at Royd’s Mill, Washford Bridge, half a mile away from the Zion Church.  They lived at Wincobank Hall.

One of his daughters, Mary Ann Rawson (1801-1887), was a notable anti-slavery campaigner who with her sister Emily Read was a founder-member of the Sheffield Female Anti-Slavery Society and its successor, the Sheffield Ladies Association for the Universal Abolition of Slavery.

Another of his daughters, Elizabeth “Eliza” Read (1803-1851), married William Wilson (1800-1866), a nonconformist Radical who was chairman of the Nottingham Anti-Slavery Committee.

Their son, Henry Joseph Wilson (1833-1914) was the “stern and uncompromising” Liberal MP for Holmfirth (1885-1912).

His teetotal, non-smoking younger brother, John Wycliffe Wilson JP (1836-1921) became Lord Mayor of Sheffield (1902) on condition that alcohol should be banned at the Town Hall during his term.  As Chairman of Sheffield Board of Guardians he instigated the development of cottage homes for orphaned children.

Henry Joseph Wilson’s son, Cecil Henry Wilson (1864-1945) was Labour MP for Attercliffe (1922-1931 and 1935-1944).

In this nonconformist, Radical, individualistic town, this self-made dynasty is working-class aristocracy and Mary Ann Rawson’s campaigning career entitles her to national recognition.

Their unassuming, long-forgotten burial place deserves to be treasured and celebrated.

It commemorates what made Sheffield.