Assets or Eyesores? Plymouth’s Art Deco Survivors

 

Old Town Street and Spooner's Corner after the Blitz in 1941.
Plymouth 1941 via cornwall24.net

 

The historic naval city of Plymouth is said to have been one of, if not THE worst, victims of bombing in this country during WWII. In an attempt to obliterate the Royal Docklands at HMRN Davenport, the Luftwaffe relentlessly targeted the area between 1940 and 1944, reducing large areas of Britain’s ‘Ocean City’ to rubble, and taking the lives of 1172 civilians.

Plans for redevelopment were drawn up even before the conflict had concluded, with a bold vision of low density suburban accommodation, paired with a modern zonal city centre. Much of what hadn’t been destroyed by the raids, was cleared to deliver a blank canvas to build from. The result was a coordinated, proportioned, and well laid out city centre fit for the optimistic post-war era, and it still stacks up pretty well to this day.

But what of those pieces of architecture that escaped the explosives and bulldozers? When examples of Plymouth’s pre-war architecture come under threat from development, should their remarkable escape be taken into account, or should sentimentality be put to one side in the name of progress? Personally speaking, I’m too romantically involved with nostalgia to give a sensible unbiased answer, but finding myself in the city with some time to spare, I decided to hunt down some examples of Plymouths Art Deco survivors, several of which are currently under threat.

The Royal Cinema

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Opening in July 1938, the Royal Cinema was one of eight city picture houses operating at the outbreak of war, and is the only one still showing films today. Built by the ABC chain, and designed by their in-house architect William Riddle Glen, it possesses a rather odd appearance from certain angles. Approach from the east and the slab-like reconstituted stone façade smoothly dovetails into a curved corner wing (currently painted sky blue), wrapping around the side of the building. Approach from the west however, and the impression is given of said façade, being simply stuck on to the front of the foyer, overhanging the edges in a rather awkward fashion. Since the ‘90’s, a bingo hall has been present in the stalls area, it’s shabby separate entrance lurks off to one side, while the remaining multiplexed circle continues functioning as a cinema (run by the independent REEL chain). Love it or loathe it, the ensemble is an unmistakable slice of Art Deco architecture, and is adored by passionate local film-goers and nostalgic dreamers alike.

Despite this, last year the owners of the site unveiled plans to demolish the building, replacing it with student accommodation. A hard-fought campaign ensued, including a petition with over 5000 signatures supporting retention of the venue. Several attempts have been made to list the cinema over the years, but its interior is too heavily altered to warrant sufficient merit with Historic England. The most recent development in the saga involved the local council listing the building as a community asset, ensuring the public are awarded the right to buy, if the freehold is put on the market. I’ll be following developments closely….

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Gaumont Palace

A mere shuffle from The Royal, is the former Gaumont Palace, a much grander structure, also currently in a state of limbo.  Opening in 1931 on the site of an earlier theatre, the Gaumont was the creation of West Country architects Percy Bartlett and William Henry Watkins. Taken over by the ODEON chain in the early 1960s, it was subdivided to include a dance hall, before morphing into a roller disco in 1980 (now there’s a phrase I wish I got to type more often!), seeing out its final days as a nightclub (closing in 2013).

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While standing in front of its impressive brick and stone façade, a couple scurried up to me, grinning like Cheshire cats. “Are you from GOD TV”? they asked. When my nonsensical bumbling reply concluded with a “no”, they proceeded to fill me in. Both, it seemed, had ‘wasted’ much of their youth within the building, indulging in one euphoric drug addled rave after another, only later to be saved by the grace of our good lord. God then shone his yellow face upon the tired old Gaumont, forseeing a £multi-million restoration to transform the site into a state of the art prayer centre and studio for the aforementioned Christian channel. Now this all sounds very promising indeed, a number of old cinemas nationwide have been reborn as churches, many receiving a full restoration in the process, but dig a little deeper and concerns start to arise. The initial completion date was set for 2014, then postponed until 2015, before the married directors of GOD TV got themselves caught up in an infidelity scandal. Following a resignation of one, due to “moral failure”, the project is reported to continue with a 2020 launch date. God himself is apparently funding the work, estimated to be between £5-7 million, but donations are, of course, always welcome. Rather worryingly though, no work has apparently taken place to date, not a jot, and the building looks in a rough state. I would be delighted if the scheme came to fruition, but I’m not holding my breath.




Colin Campbell House
Colin Campbell Court, adjacent to the main city shopping area, is a sizable parking lot, surround by a series of run down 1960’s retail and office units. Slap bang in the middle, at a rather awkward angle, stands a potential stunner: Colin Campbell House. Built by E. G. Catchpole, this streamline beauty was constructed in 1938 as a garage and showroom for the Austin Motor Company. They must have been planning on shifting a fair few vehicles, as this four storey complex far outweighs any similar dealerships I’ve encountered from the period. Information is sketchy, and I’ve not been able to uncover how long it fulfilled its original purpose, but in recent years it has served as a Mothercare, Habitat, Chinese supermarket, and now, a discount furniture outlet.

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In 2001, an unsuccessful attempt was made to list the building by C20th society, but there are rumblings of second application being put together. The present external condition is utterly depressing, peeling paint, crumbling render, rusting windows, and naff adverts all insult the heritage of the place. A faded Habitat sign (closed in 2011 I believe) protrudes from the pavement, like some aged sentry trying to trick the unsuspecting shopper. Currently open as CFS (not D), only the first two floors are accessible to the public (so I’m told, I didn’t have enough time to explore), and all original internal features have either been covered up or removed.

Having originally signaled it was to be demolished as part of a redevelopment of the whole site, the local council later bowed to public pressure, calling for the building to be retained in the plans. This has subsequently been modified from a requirement, to a merely a suggestion, and the site remains available, should a suitable developer be willing to take it on.

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Tinside Lido

Having plumbed the depths of Plymouth’s neglected inter-war structures, I was keen to leave the place on a high by calling in on Ocean City’s crowing jewel, the grade II* listed Tinside Lido. Designed by borough engineer J Wibberly in 1935, Tinside was built in the dream situation for any outdoor pool: on the coast. The large circular pool is literally built into the sea, a swimmable pier if you like. Closed in 1992 due to falling numbers, it remained empty for a decade, before being fully restored, reopening in 2005.

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Plans for a swim were put on hold due to the unseasonably cold, windy and wet conditions, but the team were kind enough to let me look around and take some photos.

Entering from the cliff top level, one walks down a sloping covered parade overlooking the pool. A spiral staircase takes you down one storey to the entrance (unless you take the lift from the coast road, it’s a fully accessible pool). After negotiating your way in by purchasing a keyring and post card, you’re met with the most gorgeous stairwell. Lit from above, and in front, by glass bricks, one is transported into the 1930’s by an abundance of period features including azure tiles with red hgihlights, stylised signage, and a sleek bronze banister with geometric railings. I wasn’t allowed into the changing rooms with my camera (why ever not?), but I hear they’re equally special. 




Emerging on the ground floor to the sound of roaring waves, you’re met with a sizable area for sun lounging, a raised walkway, where one might pause, gazing out to the ocean liners yonder, and a glorious fountain in the centre of the pool. The head life guard insisted on cranking said fountain up to maximum, before I commenced shooting, a move that rather perplexed the one swimmer present, who was confined to a lane running right past the darn thing! I just chuckled and adjusted my camera.
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Despite the obvious limitation of appeal thanks to the unpredictable British weather, Tinside remains one of Plymouth’s key tourist attractions, drawing in huge numbers each year. With the potential possessed by the other survivors, a real possibility of a 30’s heritage trail, or Art Deco quarter, presents itself. As always though, the small issues of funding and feasibility will probably be the deal breakers. The appetite amongst the community for retention, restoration, and reuse certainly appears to be ravenous though, and god’ll presumably lend a hand with painting a few walls too. Ocean City might well relive the Jazz Age once again!

Plymouth Harbour, Devon. Vintage BR(WR) Travel poster by Harry R

 

For further information and updates, please visit the following links:

70 images of Plymouth during the Blitz with editorial: http://www.plymouthherald.co.uk/plymouth-blitz/story-28762897-detail/story.html

Royal/Reel Cinema: https://www.change.org/p/plymouth-city-council-save-the-reel-cinema-in-plymouth

Gaumount Palace: no dedicated site on the refurbishment, but if desperate… https://www.god.tv

Colin Cambell House: https://www.facebook.com/SAVE-Colin-Campbell-House-589415457874302/

Tinside Lido: https://www.everyoneactive.com/centre/tinside-lido/

 

Bingo, Striptease & Jazz; A Short History of Dudley Hippodrome

IMG_1725smAll over Britain countless former cinemas and theatres lay vacant, slowly deteriorating while a decision on their future is debated.  A select few, largely thanks to pockets of enthusiasts and community groups, get rescued from the wrecking ball, restored and preserved for future generations to enjoy. With a professional, creative and passionate approach, many of these glamorous old structures can still successfully be used for their original purpose. Failing this, it’s often viable to sympathetically modify the building to fulfil new functions, without altering the fabric dramatically.

Alas, many don’t get the opportunity to rise from the ashes. It seems a month rarely passes when I don’t read about another former cinema or theatre being torn down to make way for some architecturally bankrupt, get-rich-quick project. Obviously not every example can, or should be preserved. Some, following years of neglect and vandalism, have succumbed to the elements and deteriorated beyond the point of no return. Others, simply don’t possess the architectural merit or viable business solution to make restoration worthwhile. But those that do, those inspiring examples of Britain’s flamboyant theatrical and cinematic heritage, awaiting the chance to illuminate their neon signs again, should surely be awarded the opportunity.

The Hippodrome in Dudley is one such case in point that, thanks to community pressure, has recently been snatched away from the dreaded demolition gangs. Designed by renowned theatre architect Archibald Hurley Robinson, it replaced the Dudley Opera House, a late Victorian building gutted by fire in 1937. The Hippodrome’s giant curvaceous buff-brick frontage stood directly next door to another Robinson building, the more cubic Plaza Cinema, completed two years earlier. This in turn, was adjacent to the Zoo’s main entrance, and directly opposite the stunning 1937 ODEON Cinema. With four dramatic modernist attractions in such close proximity, all on the main drag into town, Dudley must surely have been the envy of its less pioneering Black Country neighbours.

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Plaza & Hippodrome

Completed just prior to Christmas 1938, the Hippodrome threw open its doors with an evening of up-tempo jazz, headlined by the formidable Jack Hylton and his Band. 1939 saw a packed programme of music, theatre and dance, typical of variety theatres during the period. Despite temporary closure during the war, the 1600 seat venue, dubbed ‘The Showplace of the West Midlands’ became a mainstay for major touring theatre and variety performances in the late ‘40s and ‘50s. The annual Christmas pantomime was another big draw, featuring some of the dazzling entertainment stars of the day including Harry Secombe, Derek Roy, Tommy Cooper, Eve Boswell, Beryl Reid and Morecombe & Wise. The golden 1950’s were rounded out with a run of sell out shows by rebellious rock ‘n’ rolling upstart, Cliff Richard.

Dubious management led to a reported decline of quality bookings in the early 1960’s, and with striptease performances and evenings of wrestling not filling the stalls, the Hippodrome changed hands. Re-launching as a casino club, it boasted a combination of bingo during the day, and live performances every night, a format that lasted until 1974, with the late great Roy Orbison, closing out proceedings. From that point on, the Hippodrome concentrated solely on hosting a mixed bill of bingo, bingo and more bingo, a concern that would  actually prove viable for a further 35 years at the venue. Sadly, all good things must come to an end, and in September 2009 the balls would flutter for the last time, as the Hippodrome shut its doors for good.

The Plaza had been demolished in 1997, and thus, plans were made to follow suit with its now decaying neighbour. Had it not been for a group of local enthusiasts led by former college lecturer Geoff Fitzpatrick, this would probably have been the end of the story. The Save Dudley Hippodrome group (later Black Country Hippodrome ltd) collected 35,000 signatures objecting to the demolition of the building, and proposing it be restored and brought back to life in its original guise, a theatre for national and international touring productions.

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Geoff Fitzpatrick – photo: Midlands News Express & Star

Sadly, Geoff passed away in 2014 while the fight with the council was ongoing, but the group he helped form continued their quest, and in July 2016 was granted a five year lease to restore and revive the building. The keys were handed over to chairman, Dr Paul Collins in front of a jubilated crowd at a ceremony on the steps of the boarded up venue in December, and the arduous task of raising funds has now begun.

This short video filmed in 2015 by Dr Collins, though not of very high quality, does show the auditorium intact, complete with decorative plaster mouldings on the side walls, circle and ceiling. Further images taken by volunteers show an Aladdin’s cave of period features retained within the building, all ripe for restoration.

Having visited the site a couple of times recently, I can’t help but comment that the scale of the project is mind boggling. The giant brick complex houses a neat collection of graffiti, rooftop weeds, boarded up windows, leaking guttering and missing down pipes that is not a sight for the feint hearted. Look past its current condition though, and the sheer potential the place possesses is astounding. With its prominent location, excellent access, and ample parking, there is no reason why it couldn’t be run as a successful theatre, and to see this gigantic chunk of jazz age construction glowing with neon again, busy with Black Country crowds, would be truly magical.

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Artistic impression of a renovated Hippodrome, via the friends Facebook page

For further information and updates on the project, please join, follow, like, contribute to the Black Country Hippodrome’s Facebook page here  https://www.facebook.com/groups/25779253540/

Missing in Action

A short walk from our home on the boundaries of the prestigious Malvern College campus stands the Preston School of Science. Designed by Hubbard and constructed in 1938, it brought the colleges facilities right up to date, catering for the modern science scholar.

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From Google Streetview in 2008

A fairly unsympathetic extension was added to the rear in the 1960s and this is how it remained (externally at least) until last year. A £6.5 million redevelopment program transformed this rather tired pairing into the ‘Razak Science Centre’, an award winning ‘cutting edge’ world class facility.  This is obviously all good news. Everyone welcomes huge investment in their local area and I’ve no desire to go against the grain. But I do have one teeny tiny little complaint: why didn’t they retain the original Crittall windows?

I know I know, its a trivial complaint and it’s clearly not practical to have any 21stC business housed in an un-modernised thermally inefficient 20thC building, let alone a feather in the cap of one of the world’s leading private colleges. The replacements do follow the design of the originals (better modern double glazed recreations are available) but the delicate subtle grids have been exchanged for clumsy thick uncompromising white bands, thus erasing much of the buildings charm and character.

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New windows have similar design, but are much less subtle

Having started to research 1930s buildings in Worcestershire it seems that the loss of these windows is fairly symbolic of a larger rather depressing theme. Architecture of this vintage is either listed, or discarded. Some fine examples of Lidos, Cinemas and the like remain in the county, all preserved within an inch of their life to wow the passing crowds. Societies and community groups seem to form and rally behind the more glamorous ‘Art Deco’ structures that are at risk, raising funds and awareness in order to restore and flourish.

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Gone but not forgotten, Welland Garage.

Others however, like the poor little Roberts Garage in nearby Welland get demolished without a second thought to make way for housing. This sorry little chap was sold and knocked down fairly quickly after going on the market a couple of years ago. I considered trying to raise the funds to purchase it with a view to opening a ‘retro’ diner there, but the asking price (which reflected the fact it had planning to build 4 houses in desirable area) made it unpractical.

Last night I turned my Google sights on a classic 1930s factory in Worcester I discovered in 2012. I had always meant to return with the camera for a better look but somehow never got around to it. Now it would seem that the residents, one Metal Box Co LTD closed up shop in mid 2013 leaving the building apparently unoccupied.

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Metal Box Co LTD, Worcester Perry Wood Plant. Closed in 2013

I’ve found no records to suggest that it has been demolished, but god knows what state it’s in. If it is still standing then I suspect it’ll be boarded up and covered in graffiti. It’s not far from my in-laws, so I hope to pop over on Sunday for a peep. I’ll wear black just in case, as I suspect I’ll be in mourning yet again.

Clearly I’m a hopeless nostalgic who struggles to cope with physical change in the modern world, but looking around I can’t help but feel that 20thC architecture is treasured far less than it ought to be. As always, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and perhaps the majority of the public aren’t ready to embrace this era of design. Perhaps reviving old industrial properties for commercial use simply doesn’t stack up financially, but come on people, surely there must be a little more love out there to give to these fantastic icons of inter-war Britain?

If you’re interested in this subject please follow these links and help the good people who are:

Restoring Saltdean Lido

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Trying to save Floral Hall at Belfast Zoo.

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Sadly I think the demolition Jersey airport is a done deal.

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