Category Archives: Twentieth-century architecture

Streets in the sky 1


Park Hill Flats, Sheffield (1982)

Few decisions about listing buildings have caused so much controversy as the Grade II* award to Sheffield’s Park Hill Flats in 1998.  Opinion remains divided about whether the late-1950s “streets in the sky” are emblematic of post-war optimism, or an abomination that should have been torn down long ago.

J L Womersley was appointed City Architect for Sheffield in 1953 with the responsibility for redeveloping the bomb-damaged city centre and coping with a massive housing problem. 

Neighbouring authorities, particularly Derbyshire, opposed Sheffield’s threats to invade their territory with boundary extensions, yet overspill populations from densely-packed inner-city areas couldn’t be decanted away into the city’s Green Belt. 

After the mid-1950s development of the attractive low-density Gleadless Valley and Low Edges estates there was nowhere else to build.

As well as the tower-block developments common to many British cities, Lewis Womersley experimented with two deck-access developments, Park Hill (1958-60) and Hyde Park (1962-6), followed after his departure to Manchester by Kelvin (W L Clunie, 1966-9), each a development of Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation street-deck concept. 

In execution Park Hill was easily the most successful, partly because of its relative proximity to the city-centre, but mostly because the steeply-sloping site permitted ground-level access at one end to each floor except the topmost. 

The development offered a range of accommodation – one- and two-bedroom flats, interspersed with two- and three-bedroom maisonettes.  Among the up-to-the-minute conveniences, the Garchey waste-disposal system, flushing kitchen waste to ground level, reduced the need for dustbins.

Pubs, shops and a newly-built primary school provided local amenities, and the site is a short bus-ride from the city centre.

Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, in the second edition of The Buildings of England: Yorkshire West Riding (revised by Enid Radcliffe, Penguin 1967), made a complacent but prescient comment about Park Hill, that they would be slums within half a century, and he hoped, with breathtaking arrogance, that they would at least prove to be a cosy slum “which people will feel to be their home”.

When Park Hill was listed Grade II* in 1998, the Head of Listing at English Heritage, Dr Martin Cherry, described it as “likened to a medieval fortress, a glittering cliff-face of windows….a magnificent structure of which many of its residents and Sheffield Council are rightly proud”. 

A comprehensive refurbishment by the developer Urban Splash, started in 2009 but stalled in the face of adverse economic downturn, is still not concluded.

When it’s finished, Park Hill will be cosy, and it certainly won’t be a slum.

Palace fit for a lemur

Eltham Palace, London

Stephen Courtauld (1883-1967) had plenty of money, as a member of the family that introduced the world to rayon and, with no need to work, he spent his life as an art connoisseur and philanthropist, financing expeditions with the Royal Geographical Society, and co-founding Ealing Studios.

He met his wife Virginia (née Peirano) while mountaineering in Italy after war service with the Artists’ Rifles.  They married in 1923.

During the 1930s Stephen and Virginia Courtauld leased the derelict royal palace at Eltham in east London, and commissioned the architects John Seely (1899-1963) and Paul Paget (1901-1985) to restore the surviving medieval Great Hall and construct a discreet but modern fourteen-bedroom residence alongside.

Seeley and Paget resolved the sharp contrast in scale of the huge royal hall and the practical 1930s residence by setting the new house at a sharp angle, linked by a low entrance front which makes a point of revealing three original Tudor timbered gables behind.  The house is French Renaissance in style, punctuated by three copper-capped towers defining the hinge of the angle between the old and the new buildings.  The tapering copper roofs are an echo of the lost Tudor buildings of the Palace.

Virginia Courtauld had very definite ideas about interior design:  though Seely & Paget did most of the bedrooms and bathrooms, the fashionable designer Piero Malacrida (1889-1983) created her bathroom (green onyx with gold-plated taps) and boudoir, and collaborated with the firm White, Allom to devise the dining-room (maple, black marble floor and fireplace, and silver ceiling) and the contrasting Italian-style drawing room.  The principal feature of Mrs Courtauld’s dressing-room was a wall-map of the Eltham district in appliqué leather.  The triangular entrance-hall, top-lit by a dome, was decorated by the Swedish architect Rolf Engströmer (1892-1970) in blackbean veneer in the style of Ragnar Östberg’s Stockholm City Hall (1923).

The Courtaulds were devoted to their pet ring-tailed lemur, Mah-Jongg, purchased from Harrods in 1923.  Mah-Jongg had his own architect-designed, centrally heated quarters and was allowed access, by means of a bamboo ladder, to all areas of Eltham Palace until his death in 1938.

Mr Courtauld suggested adapting the basement billiard-room as “habitations” in the event of enemy attack, and in this underground sanctum the Courtaulds lived through the Second World War, often joined by Stephen Courtauld’s niece, Sydney, and her husband, R A Butler, who drafted parts of the parliamentary bill that became the 1944 Education Act at Eltham.

The house was hardly used as a residence in the way it was designed, for towards the end of the war the Courtaulds went to live in Scotland and eventually moved out to Southern Rhodesia, where their estate, La Rochelle, is now a property of the National Trust of Zimbabwe.  Stephen Courtauld died there in 1967;  his widow moved to Jersey in 1970 and died there two years later.

When Eltham Palace was taken over by the Institute of Army Education in 1944-5, the only fittings left in situ were the wood panelling, the two principal bathrooms and the lacquer dining room doors by Narini. 

The Institute moved out in 1992, and two years later English Heritage began an ambitious programme of restitution, recreating the décor and furnishings of the Courtauld period from the 1937 Country Life photographs and a 1939 inventory taken as a precaution against air-raid damage.

The house opened to the public in 1999 – one of the most modern houses open to the public, but actually more modern than it looks: Eltham Palace and Gardens | English Heritage (english-heritage.org.uk).

Eltham Palace is one of the houses featured in Mike Higginbottom’s lecture ‘English Country Houses – not quite what they seem’.  For further details, please click here.

Reichstag dome

Reichstag Dome, Berlin, Germany

I learnt the hard way that if you want a ticket to the Reichstag Dome you need to be up with the lark.  I don’t go on holiday to stand in a queue in the midday sun, but I was able to walk straight into the ticket office at breakfast-time.

The Reichstag building can legitimately be called an icon. 

Opened in 1894 to house the Imperial Diet of the German Empire, which itself had been established in 1871, it remained the seat of government through the post-World War I Weimar Republic until it was infamously and mysteriously burnt out in 1933.

This was the act that enabled the Nazi Party to extinguish, very quickly, all semblance of democracy in Germany.  They had no use for a symbol of representative government, and arranged occasional perfunctory meetings of the Diet in the Kroll Opera House nearby:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kroll_Opera_House#/media/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-1987-0703-507,_Berlin,_Reichstagssitzung,_Rede_Adolf_Hitler.jpg.

In the race to occupy Berlin in May 1945, the Red Army made the Reichstag ruins their goal, memorialised by the famous photograph ‘Raising a Flag over the Reichstag’:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raising_a_Flag_over_the_Reichstag#/media/File:Reichstag_flag_original.jpg.

Though the Reichstag ruins stood in the British zone of West Berlin, the boundary with the Soviet sector was a few feet from the rear.  The shell was reconstructed, shorn of its cupola and stripped of decorative features that recalled German Imperial bombast, between 1961 and 1964, and used as an office block until after the reunification of East and West Germany, which was confirmed in a ceremony at the Reichstag in 1990.

A year later, the decision was taken to relocate the former West German government from Bonn to Berlin and to restore the Reichstag as the base for the Bundestag, the present-day Diet.

The British architect Norman Foster won the competition to convert the building in 1992.  He restored much of the vanished exterior decoration, and added an elegant glass dome in place of the cupola.  The structure within the external walls is almost entirely new, and the dome is a superlative tourist experience, the second most popular visitor attraction in Germany after Cologne Cathedral.

After an inevitable passport check and baggage inspection, visitors are whisked in a lift to the roof.  They don’t get a look at Norman Foster’s modern interior inside the surviving nineteenth-century shell of the building.  They are presented with audio-guides that automatically start the moment they enter the dome.

The tour involves walking up a spiral ramp to the very top of the dome and then returning down a second ramp.  The arrangement affords spectacular views outwards and inwards, but is not particularly friendly to vertigo sufferers.

The English commentary is consummately professional – not a word out of place, with pauses at appropriate points and breaks in continuity that allow a sense of not being rushed.

Nearby, between the Reichstag and the Brandenburg Gate, are two profoundly moving sites, the Memorial to the Sinti and Roma Victims of National Socialism, a black pool symbolising the evil deeds it commemorates, with a triangular stone in the centre, representing the badges that the Nazis’ victims were required to wear. 

In the northern pavilion of the Brandenburg Gate itself I found the Raum der Stille [Silent Room], suggested by Dag Hammarskjöld’s earlier room in the United Nations Headquarters in New York City – a simple and effective opportunity to withdraw from the hubbub of the city for a while:  https://translate.google.co.uk/translate?hl=en&sl=de&u=http://www.raum-der-stille-im-brandenburger-tor.de/&prev=search.  

Exploring Canberra: one cathedral short…

St Christopher’s RC Cathedral, Manuka, Canberra, Australia
St Paul’s Church, Manuka, Canberra, Australia

I knew from a tablet at St John’s Church, Reid that there is no Anglican Cathedral at Rottenbury Hill in Canberra, though its site has been held since 1927 [View from the platform constructed for the dedication ceremony for the site of St. Marks Anglican Cathedral on Rottenbury Hill, Canberra, 8th May 1927 [picture] (nla.gov.au)], and I discovered that Canberra has a Catholic cathedral in a suburb called Manuka (named after the flower, Leptospermum scoparium). 

On the way to the Catholic cathedral through the Canberra suburbs, misdirected by a bus driver, I came across the Anglican Church, St Paul’s, an immaculate brick essay in Art Deco with Gothic hints by the Sydney architects Burcham Clamp & Son, begun in 1939 and most recently extended in 2001.  The Anglican diocese remains based in Goulburn, where there is a particularly fine cathedral of St Saviour (1884) by Edmund Blacket, one of his best works.  As a result, St Paul’s, though only a parish church, often hosts civic and government services.  St Paul’s has Canberra’s only ring of eight bells for change ringing and its largest pipe organ.

St Christopher’s Catholic Cathedral is a few hundred yards away, a Romanesque design by Clement Glancy Snr, begun in 1939 and extended by his son, also Clement Glancy, in 1973 when the previous Catholic cathedral in Goulburn was demoted.  St Christopher’s is the largest place of worship in Canberra, so it vies with St Paul’s Church to receive major services and events.  This building is not the intended design and doesn’t stand on the intended site of the planned Catholic Cathedral for Canberra:  GC447YC Canberra Cathedrals (Multi-cache) in Australian Capital Territory, Australia created by Pacmania (geocaching.com).

Meanwhile Rottenbury Hill, the site designated in 1927 for an Anglican cathedral in the national capital, has never been used for its intended purpose.  Instead, there are plans, apparently, for a Southern Cross Sanctuary:  Southern Cross Sanctuary | civicarts.

The story is one of masterly clerical inactivity:  http://anglicanhistory.org/aus/campbell_canberra2002.pdf.  Successive synods of the Church of England in Australia (since 1962 the Anglican Church of Australia) have repeatedly kicked into touch discussion of how a bishopric for the capital would fit into the Australian hierarchy, as well as the practical question of how an actual cathedral would be financed and built.

At the outset it fell to the then Bishop of Goulburn, Lewis Bostock Radford (1869-1937), to raise questions about this project in Synod because the New Capital Territory lay within his vast diocese.

He spent much of his career as bishop urging his fellow clergy to decide what to do while distancing himself from taking responsibility for a nebulous and unwieldy scheme that was beyond his capacity as an individual.

He retired at the end of 1933 and died in England four years later.

His ashes lie in St John’s Church, Reid, waiting to be interred in the new national cathedral if and when it is built.

Beneath the City Streets

BT Tower, Fitzrovia, London

I’ve always been interested in the rumours, urban legends and hard evidence for secret government installations underground, both in urban settings and in remote country areas, quietly inserted before, during and particularly after the Second World War, ever since I first read Peter Laurie’s book, Beneath the City Streets (Allen Lane 1970), shortly after it was published.

Peter Laurie (b 1937), a freelance journalist, had written an article for the Sunday Times in 1967 about how wartime civil defence had been transformed, with hardly any public attention, ostensibly in response to the peculiar threats of nuclear warfare.

He became sufficiently intrigued to develop his research as a hobby, which he published as a book which ran to two editions.

He concluded that “civil defence in its higher manifestations deals with the brute realities of government…it encases the central essence of political power”.

All this he accomplished on paper, using information that was in the public domain, stringing together data sometimes from unlikely sources, such as the GPO trunk dialling codes and the London Underground map, and throwing up facts that fascinated me at the time.

He pointed out quirks in the alignments of the horn aerials of the GPO microwave system that, while providing the nation with colour television signals, bent back and forth to serve as an impenetrable communication system between sites that would protect government and military operations in the event of warfare or civil unrest. 

He showed that the locations of the GPO towers at Bagshot and Stokenchurch were aligned with RAF Medmenham, a secret installation at Warren Row (identified by the Spies for Peace [Spies for Peace – Wikipedia] in 1963) and the RAF Staff College Bracknell.  Each site had sufficient altitude to tap into the microwave signal overhead making them independent of more vulnerable underground cables.

He drew attention to the existence of Second World War facilities in the underground quarries adjacent to Box Tunnel on the Great Western main line, providing easy transportation for an emergency evacuation from central London and from Windsor to National Seat of Government under the village of Box [Closely-guarded secret | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times].

Much of this infrastructure subsequently became outmoded, and some of it is now common knowledge.  Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms, for instance, is a celebrated attraction:  Visit Churchill War Rooms – Plan Your Visit | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk).

Nuclear bunkers are open to the public in York [York Cold War Bunker | English Heritage (english-heritage.org.uk)], Cheshire [Hack Green Secret Nuclear Bunker], Holderness [Home – Home (visitthebunker.com)] and Essex [The Secret Nuclear Bunker – Kelvedon Hatch – Kelvedon Hatch – Secret Nuclear Bunker].  Another is under restoration in Edinburgh [Barnton Quarry Rotor SOC and Regional Seat of Government – Subterranea Britannica (subbrit.org.uk)].

Others, rarely mentioned in the public domain, may still be operational:  Hidden depths at Manchester’s Arndale Centre | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.

Peter Laurie’s book has long been out of print, though copies are still available [Beneath the City Streets: 9780140033816: Amazon.com: Books], and the content is inevitably dated, but it remains worth reading for insights into the effort expended to preserve government control, and the ubiquity of secret activity hiding in plain sight.

Super cinema

Plaza Cinema, Stockport

One of the most enjoyable residential leisure-learning weekends I’ve ever had the pleasure to lead was ‘Dream Palaces:  an introduction to cinema architecture’ in November 2004 for the now-closed and much-lamented Wedgwood Memorial College at Barlaston, near Stoke-on-Trent.

The College was blessed with a cosy atmosphere, an eclectic selection of subjects for study, staff who alike knew the regular students and welcomed newcomers, and home cooking.

The centrepiece of my two-day programme of talks, videos and slide presentations was a half-day trip to visit the Plaza Cinema, Stockport, a magnificent example of an early-Thirties super-cinema, designed by William Thornley and a near twin of his Regal, Altrincham, which opened in 1931 and burnt down in 1956.

The Plaza is unusual in that it’s built into a cliff, its façade facing Mersey Square, once the gathering place for the town’s trams and buses.  Much of the 1,800-seat auditorium is practically underground.  In an evacuation, some members of the audience go upstairs to the emergency exits rather than down.

The interior displays an eclectic mixture of Egyptian, classical, Moorish and Art Deco features of unusual richness:  the original decorative scheme was dominated by the burnished silver dome, lit by a Holophane system of 6,000 variable coloured lights. 

The three-manual, eleven-rank Compton organ, like its sister at the Regal, Altrincham, was built to the specification of Norman Cocker, deputy organist at Manchester Cathedral, and was the very first Compton organ to have an illuminated console.

The Plaza opened in on Friday October 6th 1932, showing Laurel and Hardy in Jailbirds and Jessie Matthews in Out of the Blue.  Its prominent central site protected it from increased competition in its early years and from the inexorable decline of cinema audiences in the 1950s, even though its nearest large competitors belonged to national first-release circuits. 

It was bought by the Mecca Group in 1965, and after initial opposition from Stockport Borough Council a replacement bingo club opened on February 6th 1967.  The stage machinery was removed in 1989 to increase the bingo playing-area, and for a time the café operated as a night-club. Because the building was used as a bingo club until 1998 the auditorium was never subdivided, and its intact interior was in sufficiently good condition to merit Grade II listing.

Even before the closure of the bingo operation, an active campaign for preservation led to the founding of the Friends of the Plaza, an energetic group of volunteers supporting the Stockport Plaza Trust, whose campaign, in turn backed by Stockport Metropolitan Borough Council, English Heritage and the National Trust, has provided the town with a venue for live performances, recitals and films.

The Trust took possession in March 2000.  Six months later the listing was upgraded to II*, and on October 7th 2000 the building returned to public use.

In 2009, the Plaza closed for a comprehensive £3,200,000 refurbishment, and reopened on 11th December the same year with a cine/variety show, similar to its original 1932 opening show, featuring Gold Diggers of 1933, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in Towed in a Hole, soprano Marilyn Hill-Smith leading a tribute to Gracie Fields with the Plaza Orchestra, and Richard Hills playing the Compton organ.

When my Wedgwood Memorial College group visited a month before Christmas 2004, after a behind-the-scenes tour we joined an audience for Holiday Inn, the film for which Irving Berlin wrote ‘White Christmas’, together with a period newsreel, Pearl & Dean advertisements, the Compton organ, the lady with the ice-cream tray and, at the very end, we all stood up for The Queen.

There could hardly a better prelude to Christmas – all in the cause of adult continuing education. 

Learning should be fun.

Sad end for the Wakefield Regal

Wakefield Regal/ABC/Cannon Cinema, West Yorkshire (June 2021)

Though Wakefield can be justifiably proud of the preservation and continued flourishing of the Theatre Royal, its best surviving cinema building has come to a sticky end.

The Regal Cinema at the junction of Kirkgate and Sun Lane was opened on December 9th 1935 by the Associated British Picture Corporation. 

It was designed by ABC’s house architect, William R Glen, in the instantly recognisable modern style that most people know as Art Deco.  To the left of the corner entrance, the walls swept in a graceful curve following the alignment of Sun Lane.

The interior had the characteristics of thirties design – bold curves, concealed lighting and a 43-foot wide proscenium framing what in those days was a standard Academy-ratio screen. 

In fact, though it only seated 1,594 at the outset – mid-range in comparison with other contemporary urban cinemas – the stage was 26 feet deep, providing space for major drama or dance productions.

Its later history was similar to many other town cinemas – rebranded as ABC in 1962, tripled by inserting two small screens in the stalls under the balcony in 1976, sold to the Cannon group in 1986.  It closed in 1997, shortly after a major Cineworld multiplex opened in the town.

A covenant requiring the building to remain in cinema use inhibited any possibility of adaptive re-use.

The building rotted while proposals to convert it into flats in 2007 or to demolish it to make way for a new apartment building in 2013 came to nothing. 

Urban explorers in 2007 found that the basement was flooded and the front stalls were under eighteen inches of water:  Report – – Wakefield ABC – Regal cinema 13/12/07 | Theatres and Cinemas | 28DaysLater.co.uk

Eventually Wakefield Borough Council bought it in 2020, in desperation that a fine building which had become an eyesore would before long become a hazard.

A rearguard action by an energetic Friends group, supported by the Cinema Theatre Association, tried unsuccessfully to convince the Council there was any future for the building or its façade, but a “non-obtrusive structural survey” concluded that demolition would be safer before it began to fall down.  

In June 2021 the Council resolved to flatten it to create a temporary “green space” until a replacement structure, designed to “celebrate” Glen’s 1930s design, could be built.

Italian job

Lingotto Building, Turin, Italy: former test track

It’s not feasible to travel by train from Florence to London within a day.

When I took the Great Rail Journeys ‘Highlights of Tuscany’ tour [https://www.greatrail.com/tours/highlights-of-tuscany]  our return journey was broken at Turin.

As we drove through the Turin suburbs our guide Caroline mentioned that our hotel, the Nh Lingotto Congress [https://www.nh-hotels.com/hotel/nh-torino-lingotto-congress], was a conversion of a former Fiat car factory.  I’d vaguely heard about an Italian car factory turned into a hotel but I was unprepared for the luxurious splendour to which we were treated.

The building is a lengthy concrete-framed oblong with an elegant façade, built 1916-23 to the designs of Giacomo Matté-Trucco (1869-1934), originally the Fiat company’s in-house architect and engineer, but in private practice by the time he conceived the Lingotto factory.

When car production ceased in 1982 its renovation was entrusted to the Genoese architect Renzo Piano (b 1937), already well-known for collaborating with Richard Rodgers on the Centre Georges Pompidou (1971-77) in Paris and latterly famous for the Shard (2000-2012) at London Bridge.

Piano’s scheme embraces an exhibition centre (1992), an auditorium (1994), two hotels (1995) and a shopping centre.  The site includes a helipad and an art gallery stocked with pieces from the collection of Giovanni and Marella Agnelli:  Giovanni Agnelli (1921-2003) was customarily known as Gianni to distinguish him from his grandfather and namesake (1866-1945), the founder of the Fiat company.

The hotel lobby is cool and modern, and the space within the outer wings of the factory buildings is filled with a dense jungle visible through glazed walls.  The bedrooms are beautifully finished, reflecting the calibre of the designer, using the high ceilings of the original factory design, spacious and comfortable.

Although I felt hot and exhausted I couldn’t resist exploring, and by the time I’d showered and had some lunch other tour-guests were insisting I should go to the roof to see the “race-track”. 

The key to the complex is the shopping mall, 8 (Italian number ‘otto’, echoing ‘Lingotto’).  Among the shop units is the Pinacoteca Giovanni e Marella Agnelli, where a haughty young lady behind a desk pointed towards a lift which took me up four storeys to another even more haughty female who pointed me towards a further lift which carried me to the fifth-floor art gallery and the roof.

The bijou art-gallery is a delight, containing a couple of Canova sculptures and a series of paintings by Canaletto, Bellotto, Renoir, Manet, Matisse and Picasso.  No British shopping centre can boast such a life-enhancing experience above the shops.

Only when I walked on to the sunlit roof did I realise that the so-called race-track was not visible from the roof, it was the roof – an intact and well-preserved test-track, designed to run cars at 90kph at a time when the normal top speed was 70kph, with alarmingly banked curves at each end.  It features in The Italian Job (1969).

Back at shop level I got lost, which was a benefit because I came upon the helical ramp which runs through the building to give cars access to the roof. 

When I read it all up in Wikipedia Italian (in English translation, naturally,) I discovered that the raw materials were brought in at ground level, presumably from the nearby rail line, and cars were assembled as they moved upwards through the building until they emerged complete and road-ready on the roof – the exact opposite of the process in the Studebaker Building in midtown Chicago.

There’s an excellent video-essay on the Lingotto factory at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ciscQuVD5vo.

New cinema history

Former Odeon Cinema, Flat Street, Sheffield (1993)

It pleases me to have books on my bookshelf that were written by people I know.

I met Sam Manning at the 2015 Picture House Revival weekend that Hand Of created to relaunch the Abbeydale Picture Palace as a cinema after it had been closed for forty years.

Sam was at the time doing postgraduate research into cinema-going in Sheffield and Belfast between 1945 and 1965, and asked me to contribute an oral-history interview to his PhD thesis.

That research is now published as Cinemas and Cinema-Going in the United Kingdom:  decades of decline, 1945-65 (University of London Press 2020), and I couldn’t resist buying a paperback edition. You can preview it as a .pdf file at https://humanities-digital-library.org/index.php/hdl/catalog/book/cinema-going.

I’ve never been to Belfast, so that aspect of his writing was new territory for me, but the Sheffield sections relate to my childhood memories and my more recent local-history research.

Sam writes as part of the “new cinema history” movement [https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057/9781137337016_7], which seeks to place the contemporary experience of going to the pictures in the wider context of social history in the first sixty-five years of the twentieth century.

This extends the ubiquitous nostalgia accounts of the generation that knew or worked in cinemas until the 1960s and the analyses of cinema architecture, the business history of the industry and the endless literature of films and film-makers that have appeared in recent decades.

On the local level, I learned a great deal because Sam has done the legwork of surveying the surviving archives of individual cinemas against city-wide data from local newspapers, government and industry records and oral-history evidence.

He revises the long-held view that suburban cinema-going was killed by the advent of television.  There were other significant factors in play – increasing affluence, flight from inner-city slums to new housing estates and the rise of a generation of young people who thought they’d invented “teenage”, the generation commemorated in Cliff Richard’s hit ‘The Young Ones’ (1962).

He also explains a counterintuitive feature of Sheffield’s post-war cinema history, the building on Flat Street of one of the few post-war Odeon cinemas, later followed by a luxurious ABC on Angel Street.

In the 1930s, when three major chains – Odeon, Gaumont and ABC – dominated the national industry, Sheffield’s cinemas were largely owned by local companies.  Gaumont British Theatres took over the Regent in 1929, two years after it opened, and in 1931 ABC leased the Hippodrome, a variety theatre dating back to 1907, which they gave up in 1948.  Neither invested in the sort of super-cinema that is the villain of the piece in the film The Smallest Show on Earth (1957).

The Odeon chain leased a site at the junction of Flat Street and Norfolk Street in 1933, and after a five-year delay the architects Harry Weedon and W Calder Robson designed a 2,326-seat cinema, four shops and a three-storey office block.  Construction began in March 1939 and quickly came to a halt at the outbreak of the Second World War.

The post-war alignment of Sheffield’s proposed inner ring road, later known as Arundel Gate, meant redesigning the Odeon on a smaller footprint. 

When building restrictions were removed in 1954 the pre-war steelwork was dismantled and the new cinema, without the intended shops and offices, was built to a completely fresh design by Harry Weedon and Robert Bullivant.

This design featured a 55-foot screen and seated 2,319 – 1,505 in the stalls and 814 in the balcony. Lighting in the auditorium was by three rows of fittings hanging close to the ceiling and from concealed lights in the two decorative panels each side of the proscenium.  Sheffield had seen nothing like it before.

The new Odeon opened on July 16th 1956 with the newly-released Kenneth More feature-film Reach for the Sky, attended by the Deputy Lord Mayor, Ald Joseph Curtis, the managing director of the Rank Organisation, John Davis, and his wife, film star Dinah Sheridan, accompanied by the Dagenham Girl Pipers, state trumpeters from the York & Lancaster Regiment and a contingent of service personnel from RAF Norton.

In November 1958 the Odeon was equipped to show Todd-AO wide-screen films with stereophonic sound so that it could specialise in long runs of blockbuster movies. 

By the mid-1960s, cinema-going habits had changed radically.  The Sound of Music on first release ran from October 3rd 1965 until February 1967.  It was immediately followed by Khartoum (1966). 

For a short period of slightly less than two years, there were four high-quality 70mm screens in the city.  The new ABC had a 60ft screen from its opening on May 18th 1961.  The 70ft screen at the Gaumont was first used on July 23rd 1969 and the smaller screen at Gaumont 2 followed in October of the same year.

The Odeon closed on June 5th 1971 at the end of a further fourteen-month run of The Sound of Music and reopened in September of the same year as a Top Rank bingo hall, later rebranded as Mecca.

The Gaumont closed on November 7th 1985, followed by the ABC on July 28th 1988.  Both buildings were demolished.

St John’s Beacon

St John’s Beacon, Liverpool

The story of how a chimney gained the incongruous name St John’s Beacon is a saga of unwise planning decisions.

In the days when the town of Liverpool clustered around its seven medieval streets, close to the bank of the Mersey, the rising ground to the east was used for windmills, lime-kilns and the public drying of laundry, until in 1767 an area was enclosed to provide a burial ground with a small mortuary chapel, which was quickly replaced between 1775 and 1784 by St John’s Parish Church, designed in a loosely applied Gothic style by Timothy Lightoller, with a capacity of 1,500 sittings.

Harvey Lonsdale Elmes’ St George’s Hall was begun on the plateau immediately east of St John’s Church in 1841, and its west façade was left plain because it stood uncomfortably close to Lightoller’s undistinguished church.

When the Anglican Diocese of Liverpool was established in 1880 its Pro-Cathedral was the cramped parish church of St Peter, Church Street, which had been consecrated in 1704.   In 1885 the diocese obtained its Liverpool Cathedral Act, authorising construction on the site of St John’s Parish Church, but it became obvious that any of the submitted designs would have come uncomfortably close to St George’s Hall, and the Cathedral Committee, in admission of their misjudgement, quietly abandoned the whole scheme the following year.

St John’s Church was closed in 1898 and immediately demolished, and the churchyard was landscaped as a memorial garden which, with one exception, commemorated recently deceased public figures associated with the city.  St John’s Gardens opened in 1904.

Among the crowded streets south-west of St John’s Church, John Foster Jnr had built the indoor St John’s Market, opened in 1822, for meat, fruit and vegetables, with wholesale and retail fish markets adjacent.  One of the earliest examples of a covered market, it covered nearly two acres – “183 yards long and 45 yards broad” with “136 stone-trimmed classical arched window bays, supported by 116 interior cast-iron pillars” – “the largest of its kind in the kingdom…erected by the corporation at an expense of £35,296”, and lit at night by 144 gas burners.  The American painter John James Audobon described it as “an object worth the attention of all traveller strangers, it is thus far the finest building I have ever seen”.

By the mid-twentieth century, Foster’s market had become grubby and archaic, and without much debate it was replaced by a six-acre development comprising a replacement covered market, two levels of shop units, a hotel and a multi-storey car park, designed by the Birmingham architect, James A Roberts (1922-2019), whose work in his home city includes the Rotunda (1965). 

The new St John’s Market obliterated a complex pattern of small streets, leaving the much-altered former Star Theatre, now Liverpool Playhouse (Edward Davies, 1866;  Harry Percival, 1898;  Stanley D Adshead, 1911;  extended by Hall, O’Donohue & Wilson 1968), on Williamson Square, and the Royal Court Theatre (1881;  James Bushell Hutchins 1938) as outliers. 

Joseph Sharples, in the Pevsner Architectural Guide Liverpool (Yale University Press 2004) is scathing about the entire precinct – “…a bleak and brutal affair, monolithic, inward looking and awkwardly related to the different levels of the adjoining streets”.  He dismisses the early 1990s refurbishment by Bradshaw, Rowse & Harker as “prettification”. 

The one redeeming feature, rivalling Jim Roberts’ Birmingham Rotunda as a civic icon, is the St John’s Beacon, 450 feet high, the chimney to the centre’s heating system, distinguished by a revolving restaurant, closed in the 1970s and converted into a radio station c1999. The observation platform of St John’s Beacon offers one of the three best views of Merseyside, the other two being the Vestey Tower of the Anglican Cathedral and the tower of Birkenhead Priory, looking back to Liverpool from across the Mersey:  https://www.visitliverpool.com/things-to-do/st-johns-beacon-radio-city-tower-viewing-gallery-experience-p7513.

The planned programme of the rescheduled Unexpected Liverpool (June 6th-10th 2022) tour includes a visit to St John’s BeaconFor further details please click here.