Monthly Archives: October 2023

Castlefield Viaduct

Castlefield Viaduct, Manchester (2023)

Castlefield, the site of Manchester’s first known settlement, the Roman Mamucium, is a cat’s cradle of canals and railways.

The Cheshire Lines Committee, a consortium of three separate railway companies, ran four tracks into the city centre, leading to its Manchester Central passenger station and the vast Great Northern Warehouse, both of which were reborn, respectively as a conference centre and a leisure complex.

The southern CLC viaduct was adapted to carry Metrolink trams in 1992, but the parallel viaduct has had no practical transport function since the track was lifted in the early 1970s. 

In 2021 the National Trust announced a scheme to use the viaduct to create a sky park – an elevated green space in an urban environment, by making use of abandoned transport infrastructure.

The original linear sky park was the Coulée verte [green belt] René-Dumont (alternatively called the Promenade plantée [planted walkway] René-Dumont) in Paris, opened in 1993.  René Dumont (1904-2001) was a professor of agricultural sciences who began his career advocating the use of chemical fertilizers and eventually became an ecologist and an inspiration to the French Green Party.

The most famous sky park is the New York City High Line, a stretch of the New York Central Railroad’s abandoned West Side Line that was rescued from demolition and redevelopment by the Friends of the High Line.  It was opened in sections between 2009 and 2014.

These and other examples have demonstrated that it’s often cheaper and more profitable to make redundant rail infrastructure an amenity than to scrap it.  It’s well known that developers and property owners are attracted to inland waterways for sound commercial reasons, and it’s apparent that the effort to rejuvenate rail structures can similarly invigorate the surrounding area.

The Castlefield Viaduct is very much a temporary pilot project which is well worth visiting, a thousand-foot stretch accessible from the Deansgate/Castlefield tram stop:  A fly-though of Castlefield Viaduct – YouTube.  Funding for future development seems uncertain at present, and it would be a pity if the project had to be abandoned:  Castlefield Viaduct | Manchester | National Trust.

Other British cities have derelict railway structures that could be potential sky parks. 

Leeds has two such projects, the Monk Bridge Viaduct, built in 1846, closed in 1967 and now adapted as an urban garden, and the 1½-mile Holbeck Viaduct, built in 1882 and abandoned since 1987, for which ambitious plans exist.

Birmingham has the Duddeston Viaduct which, because of a disagreement between competing railway companies, was built and left incomplete in the late 1840s and has never carried a train.  

It would be satisfying to see it eventually find a useful purpose.

The new Adelphi

Adelphi Cinema, Attercliffe, Sheffield: balcony plasterwork (1982)
Adelphi Cinema, Attercliffe: balcony (2023) [© Dan Bultin]

Sheffield has only two listed cinema buildings, both coincidentally opened in 1920 – the Abbeydale Picture House, designed as a multi-purpose entertainment venue with a full theatre stage, a ballroom, a billiard saloon and a café, and the Adelphi, Attercliffe, a straightforward silent-movie house which at the time of listing in 1996 was largely intact inside and out.

At present the Abbeydale is in a state of limbo.  Problems with the auditorium ceiling have led to a legal stand-off between the landlord and the lessee which needs to be resolved to safeguard the integrity of the building and enable a full restoration to take place.

There has been a flurry of media attention about the Adelphi, which was purchased by Sheffield City Council in March 2023 for refurbishment as a mixed-use cultural space, much needed for the revival and transformation of the local community. The Adelphi is on the market, with a promise of Levelling Up funding to make it once again “occupiable”:  Levelling Up: Adelphi Cinema in Attercliffe out to market (sheffnews.com).

A very attractive CGI image shows what the interior might look like after refurbishment, yet nowhere in the media coverage is there any indication that the original 1920 decoration has completely disappeared.

The auditorium in its current state is a bleak contrast to how it looked at the time it was surveyed for listing, with “pilasters, segment-arched panelled ceiling and [a] moulded proscenium arch with [a] central crest flanked by torches [and a] U-shaped gallery with [a] latticework plaster front”.  The original scheme was delicate and light:  Searching Picture SheffieldSearching Picture Sheffield.

The listing inspector observed that “cinemas dating from this period, between 1918 and the introduction of sound in the early 1930s, are comparatively rare”.

What happened? 

I e-mailed a city councillor who will be in a position to know (or find out) but I’ve so far received no response.

I photographed the interior in 1982 when it was a bingo club and again in 1990 when it was unoccupied.  At the time the entire auditorium was bristling with classical plaster decoration designed by the architect William Carter Fenton (1861-1950;  Lord Mayor 1922).

A cluster of urban-explorer reports in 2011 suggests that conversion to a night-club was largely respectful of the building’s listed status, despite the need for structural alterations.

The building was sold for storage use in 2013 and at some point the plasterwork was stripped out.

Recent images show a bleak space that looks nothing like a 1920s cinema.  The CGI image represents an admirable exercise in making the best of a bad job, apart from the puny chandeliers.

Maybe there was a legitimate reason to take down the plasterwork:  perhaps it was unstable and might have injured someone.  Maybe the owner at the time discussed the matter with the Council planning authority, but I’ve never heard any public mention of alterations in the years after the listing.

Though the Adelphi deserves to retain its Grade II listing because its fine exterior survives intact, it now bears no comparison with the Abbeydale, and there are other Sheffield cinemas with surviving interior features which haven’t been considered for protection:

And if the stripping of the auditorium plasterwork was unauthorised, should there not be consequences for a flagrant disregard of the laws about listed buildings?

Monumental cemetery

Cimitero Monumentale, Milan, Italy: monument to the family of Francesco Podreider (1830-1894), by Domenico Ghidoni (1857-1920) – ‘Christ cleansing the Temple’

Milan’s Monumental Cemetery [Cimitero Monumentale di Milano], designed by Carlo Maciachini (1818-1899), is one of a number of magnificent Italian burial sites that far outclass even the major British examples.

This vast valhalla extends to 250,000 square metres.  The main section, predominantly Catholic as one would expect, was opened in 1866 and the Jewish section was added in 1872 and extended in 1913.  Non-Catholic gentiles are buried in a third area.

Tripadvisor recommends giving an hour to a location that would be difficult to explore thoroughly in less than a day without a guide or guide-book.  It’s an architectural and artistic buffet, and wandering is like going to Harrod’s food hall looking for a snack.

Facing the spacious entrance piazza, the Famedio (1887), a huge hall of fame in “Neo-Medieval” style, contains the remains of many of Milan’s most prominent citizens, and has sarcophagi commemorating the novelist Alessandro Manzoni (1785-1873), the philosopher Carlo Cattaneo (1801-1869) and the architect Luca Beltrami (1854-1933). 

The tombs in the archways of the Famedio’s extensive arcades are loaded with statuary in great variety, and avenues radiate from the terrace crowded with a similar variety of fortissimo graves and monuments. 

Mausolea in traditional styles – classical, Romanesque, Byzantine, – stand alongside modern structures of plate glass and steel.  Only Gothic seems to be absent.  Extravagance of design, materials, imagery, style and symbolism abound.  Bronze, copper, masonry and occasionally brick and terracotta are indiscriminately used according to families’ preference. 

Figures are draped across tombs in agonies of grief;  Father Time’s scythe reaches up from the earth.  Alongside symbol and allegory are obvious portraits, including some delightful matriarchs.  There is a surprising number of nudes, the females entirely uncovered and very beautiful, the males strategically covered.

Milan came early to embrace cremation.  Its Crematorium Temple, which also serves as a columbarium, was the first in the world, opened in 1876 and remained in use until 1992.  The range of cremators remains behind iron doors, one of them visible to the public.

I couldn’t begin to catalogue the fine monuments I photographed. 

(Google translations disconcertingly render Italian descriptions of these great monuments, edicola, as “news-stand”;  the French equivalent is Kiosque.  It’s derived from the Latin aedicula, which among other things means “shrine”.)

One exceptional example, the tomb of the textile manufacturer Antonio Bernocchi (1859-1930), is an inventive reiteration of Trajan’s Column in Rome, designed by the architect Alessandro Minali (1888-1960) and the sculptor Giannino Castiglioni (1884-1971):  Bernocchi Newsstand | Monumental Cemetery Milan (comune.milano.it)

The tomb of the Campari family, beverage manufacturers whose famous aperitif bears their name, is an elaborate life-sized representation of the Last Supper by Giannino Castiglioni (1884-1971) – Campari Newsstand | Monumental Cemetery Milan (comune.milano.it) – and the monument to the family of Francesco Podreider (1830-1894), by Domenico Ghidoni (1857-1920), is a dramatic portrayal of Christ Cleansing the Temple:  Gospel Iconography | Monumental Cemetery Milan (comune.milano.it).

The composer Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) lies in a mausoleum decorated with carvings by Leonardo Bistolfi (1859-1933), along with his wife Carla Finzi (d1951), his four children and his son-in-law, the pianist Vladimir Horowitz (1903-1989) and his daughter-in-law, the classical dancer Lucia Fornaroli (1888-1954):  Toscanini Newsstand | Monumental Cemetery Milan (comune.milano.it)

In contrast to these lively expressions of grief, the dour monument designed by Mario Palanti (1885-1978) for his parents and family, consists of truncated Doric columns supporting a vast sarcophagus.  It was built in the years 1928-30, and its crypt was used as an air-raid shelter in the Second World War.  It now serves as the Civic Mausoleum [Civico Mausoleo] honouring Milanese celebrities such as Herbert Einstein (1847-1902), father of the physicist Albert.

The Monumental Cemetery is overwhelming.  It certainly deserves more than an hour of anyone’s time.

Liverpool Olympia

Olympia Theatre, West Derby Road, Liverpool

The circus industry has traditionally been peripatetic – we associate going to the circus with a “big top” tent in a field – but there was a moment, early in the twentieth century, when it seemed sensible to build auditoria big enough to house a circus ring.

That moment was brief.  The prolific theatre-architect Frank Matcham (1854-1920) converted the Brighton Hippodrome from an ice rink in 1901, but it was rebuilt as a variety theatre the following year.  Frank Matcham’s London Hippodrome on the corner of Leicester Square, built in 1900, was adapted as a variety theatre in 1909.

There are two places in Britain where you can still experience circus in a purpose-built hippodrome – Blackpool Tower Circus (1894;  interior by Frank Matcham 1900) and the Great Yarmouth Hippodrome (1903), but there’s a third survivor which is one of the largest and grandest of Frank Matcham’s auditoria.

The Olympia Theatre, West Derby Road, Liverpool (1905) was a proscenium theatre with a circus ring and water tank for the briefly fashionable spectacular performances known as naumachiae

To accommodate the standard 42ft-diameter circus ring projecting into the stalls area, the proscenium is 48 feet wide, and the stage measured 100 feet wide by 41ft deep.  The fly-grid is 68 feet above the stage floor. 

The base of the ten-foot-deep 80,000-gallon under-stage tank survives without its hydraulic machinery:  the basement storey also contained stabling for elephants and horses, and cages for lions.

The original seating-capacity was 3,750.

The Olympia was built by Moss Empires only a couple of hundred yards from their rival Thomas Barrasford’s 3,500-seat Royal Hippodrome (1902;  demolished 1984), which stood opposite Low Hill Cemetery (now Grant Gardens). 

Ken Roe, in his visit-notes for a Cinema Theatre Association tour in 2000, commented –

The Olympia was provided with 36 separate exits, but the problem turned out to be how to get the people into the place, not out…

Harold Akroyd, The Dream Palaces of Liverpool (Amber Valley 1987), remarked that –

…an asylum once occupied the site of the Olympia, which prompted the comment that Moss & Stoll must have been mad to open a music hall so close to the city…

This story is too good to check, however:  The Stage, April 27th 1905, indicates that the site was formerly occupied by the Licensed Victuallers Association almshouses.

Three balconies spread the audience across a wider space than a conventional proscenium theatre.  Beneath the Dress Circle were ten boxes facing the stage.  The additional proscenium boxes facing the audience were clearly intended only for circus shows.  Their onion domes are complemented by the plaster elephant-heads that embellish the side walls.  A sliding roof provided ventilation between houses.

Associated British Cinemas Ltd took on the lease in 1929.   On February 11th in that year the Olympia became Liverpool’s first sound-cinema when Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer opened.  For perhaps the only time in the Olympia’s history, queues stretched out of sight down West Derby Road.

As competition from large-capacity modern super-cinemas grew in the 1930s even the Royal Hippodrome went over to films, and ABC, which operated both buildings, closed the Olympia as a cinema on March 25th 1939.

After wartime use as a Royal Navy Depot, the Olympia was sold to Mecca Ltd and reopened as the Locarno Ballroom in 1949. 

This conversion did practically irreversible damage to Frank Matcham’s auditorium.  Raising the stalls floor to stage level involved inserting concrete pillars into the basement area; the rear-stalls projection-box was dismantled and stairways were constructed from the stalls to the Grand Circle.

In August 1964 Mecca closed the ballroom and adapted the building as one of their chain of bingo clubs. 

Clearance of the surrounding housing led to closure in 1982, after which it remained on Mecca’s hands, listed Grade II, empty and for sale.  Its listing was raised to Grade II* in 1985. 

It remained dark until Silver Leisure Ltd, owners of the adjacent Grafton Ballroom, bought it in April 1990.  Ten years later Silver Leisure reopened the building, impressively refurbished, with a programme of boxing, wrestling and concerts. 

It has continued in the same family ownership, renamed Eventim Olympia with standing space in the stalls and seating in the lower and upper balconies. From the outset it was a huge risk to build the Olympia in inner-city Liverpool, but against huge odds, this enormous building has survived and earns its keep in the twenty-first century.

For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lectures on Liverpool architecture, please click here.