Regent: a cinema regenerated in a small town in Dorset

OVER THE YEARS, many cinemas that were opened in the first half of the 20th century have either been closed or converted to be used for other purposes. A substantial number of them were built in the Art Deco style, which flourished in the 1920s and ‘30s. Some cinemas, such as the Ionic and the ABC in Golders Green and the Odeon in Temple Fortune, have been demolished. Others became bingo halls or meeting places for religious groups. The Coronet in Notting Hill Gate began life as a theatre, then became a cinema, and is now a theatre again. During a recent visit to Christchurch in Dorset, I saw a cinema, designed in the Art Deco style, which is still in business.

The Regent Cinema stands on Christchurch’s High Street. It is in pristine condition – a fine example of Art Deco architecture and internal design – it looks as if it has been built recently. Opened on Boxing Day 1931, it continued showing films until it closed in July 1973. After that, like so many other cinemas, it was operated by the Mecca company as a bingo hall and social club. This functioned until it closed in 1982. Late that year, the building was purchased by Christchurch Borough Council.

The local authority together with over 100 volunteers restored the Regent to its original Art Deco glory. In June 1983, the Regent Centre with its cinema were opened for use. Since then, the restoration of the cinema has continued and technological improvements have been made (e.g., digital cinema has been introduced). Very recently (in 2021) further work has been done to recreate the original cinema (e.g., the cinema’s seats, carpet and colour schemes, have been restored to their original appearance, and 35 mm projection has returned). Given all this loving care the cinema has received, it is no wonder that it looks like new. Now, it is mainly run by keen volunteers.  It is very heartening to discover a cinema that has survived closure and repurposing and lived to return to being used for the purpose it was originally designed. On the Sunday morning that we visited it, we were unable to enter the auditorium because it was filled with children enjoying the screening of a film. However, the ticket office contains a good set of photographs of the restored cinema’s interior.

Art Deco in Victoria

I HAVE WALKED past London’s Victoria Coach Station many times without looking at it particularly carefully. Yesterday, the 28th of September 2022, I was early for a meeting at the Embassy of Albania, which is not far from Victoria Station. So, I walked slowly, stopping to look at the Coach Station. I had never noticed before that it is a fine example of Art Deco architecture.

The Coach Station, which opened for use in March 1932, was designed by Wallis, Gilbert, and Partners.

I suppose that my interest in Art Deco buildings was initiated by visits to Bombay (Mumbai), where there are many splendid examples of this style of architecture. Gradually, I am discovering that London also has a rich collection of Art Deco buildings. The Coach Station is a fine and well-maintained example.

Surprising Art Deco in a north London suburb

HAMPSTEAD GARDEN SUBURB (‘HGS’) in north London, where I spent my childhood and early adulthood, is a conservation area containing residential buildings designed in a wide variety of architectural styles. It first buildings were finished in about 1904/5. Despite this, many of the suburb’s houses and blocks of flats were designed to evoke traditional village architecture. Much of HGS contains buildings that do not reflect the modern trends being developed during the early 20th century, However, there are a few exceptions. These include some houses built in the ‘moderne’ form of the Art Deco style, which had its heyday between the two World Wars.

In Lytton Close

A few Art Deco houses can be found in Kingsley Close near the Market Place (see https://adam-yamey-writes.com/2022/02/07/art-deco-in-a-north-london-suburb/), and there is a larger number of them in the area through which the following roads run: Neville Drive, Spencer Drive, Carlyle Close, Holne Chase, Rowan Walk, and Lytton Close.  The part of HGS in which these roads run was developed from about 1927 onwards, mainly between 1935 and 1938. So, it is unsurprising that examples of what was then fashionable in architecture can be found in this part of the suburb. According to an informative document (www.hgstrust.org/documents/area-13-holne-chase-norrice-lea.pdf) about this part of HGS:

“… A relatively restricted group of established architects undertook much development such as M. De Metz, G. B. Drury and F. Reekie, Welch, Cachemaille-Day and Lander, and J. Oliphant. H. Meckhonik was a developer/builder and architects in his office may have designed houses attributed to him.”

Most of the Art Deco houses on Spencer Drive and Carlyle Close leading off from it are unexceptional buildings, whose principal Art Deco features are the metal framed windows (made by the Crittall company) with some curved panes of glass. Fitted with any other design of windows, these houses would lose their Art Deco appearances. Number 1, Neville Drive displays more features of the style than the houses in Spencer Drive and Carlyle Close. There is, however, one house on Spencer Drive that is unmistakably ‘moderne’: it is number 28 built in 1934 without reference to tradition. It is an adventurous design compared with the other buildings in the street.

Numbers 13 and 24 Rowan Walk, a pair of almost identical buildings which stand on either side of the northern end of the street, where it meets Linden Lea, stand out from the crowd. They have flat roofs and ‘moderne’ style Crittall Windows. Built in the 1930s, they are cubic in form: unusual rather than elegant.

I have saved the best for last: Lytton Close. This short cul-de-sac is a wonderful ensemble of Art Deco houses with balconies that resemble the deck railings of oceanic liners, flat roofs that serve as sun decks, curved Crittall windows, and glazed towers housing staircases. Built in 1935, they were designed by CG Winburne. I have to admit that although I lived for almost three decades in HGS, and used to walk around it a great deal, somehow I missed seeing Lytton Close (until August 2022) and what is surely one of London’s finer examples of modern domestic architecture constructed between the two world wars. Although most of the Art Deco buildings in HGS are not as spectacular as edifices made in this style in Lytton Close and further afield in, say, Bombay, the employment of this distinctive style injects a little modernity in an area populated with 20th century buildings that attempt to create a village atmosphere typical of earlier times. The architects, who adopted backward-looking styles, did this to create the illusion that dwellers in the HGS would not be living on the doorstep of a big city but instead far away in a rural arcadia.  

Wavy walls and Hercule Poirot

SADLY, THE CHARTERHOUSE was closed to the public when I walked through London’s Charterhouse Square on a Monday in July. As I walked clockwise around the grassy space in the middle of the (not so square) square, I spotted a building with a curvy brick façade with windows, many of which have both curved steel frames and glass panes.

The building, a block of flats which has Art Deco features, is called Florin Court. Although it looks recently built, it was constructed in 1936. It was designed by Guy Morgan (1903-1987) and Partners. Morgan had worked with the better-known architect Edwin Lutyens until 1927. Two years earlier, Morgan and Partners designed another block of Art Deco style flats in Highgate Village: Cholmeley Lodge. Although I was unable to enter Florin Court, I have read (on Wikipedia) that it contains 120 flats; it has a communal library, roof garden as well as a basement swimming pool. The reason that the structure looks so new is that it underwent extensive restoration work in 2013.

Florin Court has a connection with the author Agatha Christie as the following (from https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1390634?section=official-list-entry) related:

“Best known as ‘Whitehaven Mansions’, its exterior used as the residence of Hercule Poirot in the television adaptations of Agatha Christie’s novels.”

I have never watched this television show, but I am pleased that I stumbled upon this lovely example of Art Deco architecture in the heart of one of the older areas of the City of London.

Art deco in a north London suburb

THE HAMPSTEAD GARDEN SUBURB (‘HGS’), which I mention briefly in my new book about Hampstead, “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs”, began to be built as a Utopian experiment in providing housing for all social classes in about 1904. Many of the earlier homes were built in styles that alluded to traditional vernacular architecture such as is found in East Anglia and other rural areas. Many of the older houses incorporate Arts and Craft style decorative features.

Kingsley Close

Lyttelton Road, a stretch of the A1 trunk road, passes through a part of the Suburb known as the Market Place, one of the few parts of HGS with shops. The main road separates an older part of the suburb south of it from a newer section north of it.  Close to the Market Place but south of the main road, there is a cul-de-sac, Kingsley Close, which contains houses built in 1934 in the art deco (‘moderne’) style. They have curved suntrap windows made by Crittals. The residences were designed by the architects Herbert Welch (1884–1953), Nugent Francis Cachemaille-Day (1896–1976), and Felix Lander (1890-1960). Welch did much designing in HGS and in nearby Golders Green. According to the website, http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/welch-herbert-arthur, Welch:

“… also designed the handsome curved terraces of shops and apartments in Golders Green Road that demonstrate the early C20 change of style from vernacular revival to Neo-Georgian. In collaboration with Frederick Etchells (the translator of Le Corbusier’s works into English), Welch, with Nugent Francis Cachemaille-Day (1896–1976) and Felix J. Lander (1898–1960), designed the pioneering International Modern Crawford’s Office Building, High Holborn, London (1930), with long bands of windows subdivided by steel mullions, much influenced by the Weissenhofsiedlung.”

The Weissenhofsiedlung was an estate built for an exhibition in Stuttgart in 1927. Apart from influencing Herbert Welch, it also stimulated the design and construction of the Lawn Road Flats (the Isokon) in Hampstead, which is described in my new book.

“Handsome” is not how I would describe the terrace of shops mentioned in the quote. However, I feel that the houses in Kingsley Close are more pleasing to my eyes. There are other art deco homes in the HGS, which I hope to write about in the future.

Book available here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92

Art deco in Kensington

FROM THE LATE 19th century until a few years ago, High Street Kensington was a healthily flourishing retail centre. In its heyday, it boasted of three large department stores, Pontings, Barkers, and Derry & Toms. The impressive buildings that housed the latter two still stand and are fine examples of art deco architecture located close to the Underground station, which has been in service since the late 1860s. In recent years, the advent of on-line shopping, high rents, and the proximity of the Westfield Mall at Shepherds Bush (opened 2008), which has good parking, have conspired together to make High Street Kensington less appealing to shoppers. Consequently, at any one time a large proportion of shops remain empty awaiting new tenants. Sadly, what was once (especially in the 1960s and ‘70s) a bustling high street with trendy shops like Biba and the ‘funky’ Kensington Market, both gone, has become slightly dreary.

Barkers building

Barker’s former shop, a lovely art deco edifice, which opened in 1933, was designed by Bernard George (1894-1964). Between 1928 and 1962, he was the chief architect for Barker’s of Kensington in-house design group.  It is worth examining this building closely to enjoy is many attractive details.

Art deco discovered

BOMBAY IS RICH in fine examples of buildings in the art deco style, which flourished roughly between the end of WW1 and the end of the 1930s. There is a good collection of buildings in this style along Marine Drive in Bombay, the Oval Maidan, and elsewhere in the city. London has some fine examples of structures that exhibit features of this kind of decorative style, but, apart from along a stretch of the A4 road, there are few concentrations of art deco buildings in London, such as can be found in Bombay. In London, the art deco buildings are mostly scattered around the city.

At the end of December 2021, we were walking with friends along the bank of the Thames between the London Apprentice pub at Isleworth and Richmond Bridge when I spotted a row of houses built in the art deco style. I had never seen them before. They line the south side of Park House Gardens in Twickenham. The detached house nearest the river, number 66, is larger and more attractive than the others in the street. The rest of the art deco residences on the street are rather mundane pairs of semi-detached homes, constructed to a pattern that I have seen elsewhere in London’s suburbs. Most of them have curved art deco period Crittall windows, which have panes of glass framed in metal rather than wood.

Park House Gardens was laid out in the early 1930s when:

“…gravel pits were filled in with, according to the local people, rubble and other material from the foundations of the Old Hotel Cecil in the Strand. The first houses were then built in Park House Gardens at prices of up to £1600 for semi-detached with garages, about the price of a garage today.” (www.twickenhampark.co.uk/a-brief-history.html)

The Cecil Hotel was in the Strand. Of its many guests, one was Mahatma Gandhi.

Another source (https://haveyoursay.citizenspace.com/richmondce/easttwickenham-spd/supporting_documents/East%20Twickenham%20SPD_Oct%2015.pdf) dates the houses differently:
“The buildings are semi-detached with Art Deco details though they do not appear to have been built until c. 1950s.”

Apart from the above information, I have found nothing else about these art deco style houses and would love to learn more.

Pianos and art deco in Mayfair

THE CORNER OF BROOK Street and Haunch of Venison Yard (in London’s Mayfair) is adorned with a fine building with a white Portland stone façade. It is built in the art deco style. The building, Greybrook House (28 Brook Street), was constructed in 1929 and designed by Sir John Burnet and Partners (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1392996). Burnet, born in Scotland, lived from 1857 to 1938.

Greybrook House was built to house the showrooms of the piano company, Bechstein, founded in 1853 by Friedrich Wilhelm Carl Bechstein (1826-1900). In 1901, the firm opened a concert hall, Bechstein Hall, on Wigmore Street. In 1917, the hall was renamed the Wigmore Hall and is still used today. The hall was next to Bechstein’s showrooms, which were closed in 1916 because of its German connection. In 1928, Bechstein’s, which had been closed during and after WW1, re-established itself in the UK, and commissioned the building of Greybrook House to be used for their new showrooms. In addition to showrooms, the new building included practice rooms and office space.

I am not sure when Bechstein left its Brook Street premises. However, I noticed that beside the entrance to the flats there is a beautifully carved calligraphic inscription that reads “Allied Ironfounders Ltd”. This company had its showroom in Greybrook House in the 1950s. Judging by a photograph I have seen on the Internet (www.ribapix.com/allied-ironfounders-showrooms-28-brook-street-mayfair-london-the-showrooms-entrance-with-the-brick-mural-men-of-iron-designed-by-trevor-tennant_riba25422#), it must have been quite exciting visually.

Currently, the ground floor of Greybrook House is occupied by Joseph, an upmarket clothing retailer. The upper floors have been converted into luxury flats by Fenton Whelan and Vanbrugh Prime Property. This was done recently.

The lovely art deco façade of Greybrook House remains unaltered. By chance, or who knows, maybe deliberately, Bechstein’s Brook Street showrooms were almost opposite the house where the composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) lived from 1723 until his death. Finally, the company that had its piano showrooms in Greybrook House is currently constructing a new set of showrooms and a small 100 seat concert hall back in Wigmore Street where their first London premises were located (www.rhinegold.co.uk/international_piano/c-bechstein-returns-to-londons-wigmore-street/).

Take me to the Tivoli

WIMBORNE IS A CHARMING small town in Dorset, a little north of Poole and Bournemouth. Famed for its Minster church with its mediaeval chained library, the place is rich in old buildings. One of these, looking less old than many of its neighbours, houses the Tivoli Theatre. It attracted my attention because of its (heavily restored) art deco features.

Housed in what was originally the 18th century Borough House, the theatre-cum-cinema was created in 1936 to the designs of Edward de Wilde-Holding, a prolific architect. The cinema was closed in 1980 and was threatened with demolition for a road scheme, which fortunately was abandoned. It was restored by a group called ‘Voluntary Friends of the Tivoli’ and reopened in 1993. In addition to showing films, the theatre is used for live events on its stage.

The Tivoli was not the only art deco cinema we spotted on our recent trip to the area around Winchester. 28 miles northeast of Wimborne, there is another one, The Plaza in Romsey, which was built in 1931 as a cinema but is now used as a theatre. Unlike the Tivoli in Wimborne, which occupies an old building, the Plaza in Romsey was purpose-built as a cinema.

How well do you know Leicester Square

IT WAS EERIE walking in Leicester Square today in early February 2021 at midday because we were almost alone. Normally, the square is full of people milling about and joining circles of folk watching street entertainers perform, sometimes with great skill. Apart from us, I saw no more than ten other people in this usually crowded popular focal point for Londoners and tourists alike. There was a sense of peace and calm that one customarily associates with spots deep in the countryside. I doubt that this square has been like this for many years, maybe since it was first laid out between 1630 and 1671, when it was then known as ‘Leicester Fields’.  

At the north-east corner of the Square was Leicester House, which was named after Robert Sydney, 2nd Earl of Leicester (1595-1677), and was built in about 1635. It was home to members of some royal personages including, briefly, Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia (1596-1662) whose life ended in the house, and later the huge natural history collection of Sir Ashton Lever (1729-1788), the last lessee of the house before it was demolished in 1791.

During the 18th century, the houses surrounding Leicester Square were occupied by several people, whom we still remember today. The artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) lived on the east side of the square on a site that was later occupied by the Sablonière Hotel, now demolished. The hotel’s plot is now the site of a twentieth century building housing the offices of several radio stations including LBC and Classic FM and a branch of TGI Friday. The famous surgeon and scientist John Hunter (1728-1793) lived in the house next to Hogarth’s from 1785 until his death. He kept his collection of specimens there as well as giving lessons in anatomy and dissection in rooms he added to the rear of his home. Hunter was buried in the nearby church of St Martin in the Fields. Across the square on its west side, the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds (1723-1792) lived and worked from 1761 until his death. His studio was an octagonal room. According to John Timbs, writing in 1867:

“… the sticks of his brushes were 18 inches long; he held his palettes by handle …”

In addition to his residence and studio, Reynolds built a gallery for his works. The row of houses that included that of Reynolds has long since been demolished. When I first knew Leicester Square, the east side of the square was occupied by a large office building, Fanum House, that housed the Automobile Association. Its appearance has been modified and is known as ‘Communications House’.

Other artists, who lived in the square, include Hans Huyssing (1678-1753/53), a Swedish painter; Jacques Christophe Le Blon (1667-1741); Michael Dahl (1659-1743), a fashionable Swedish portrait painter; and William Martin (1753-c1836), an English painter. Apart from artists, other notable people, several military and medical celebrities, lived around the square.

The square has a garden, in the centre of which there is a statue of William Shakespeare. This is a copy of an original made in 1741 by the Flemish sculptor Peter Scheemakers the Younger (1691-1781) who spent most of his working life in London. It was placed in the square in 1874 when the financier and member of Parliament Albert Grant (1831-1899), who was born ‘Abraham Gottheimer’, bought the garden and opened it to the public. During the 18th century, there was another statue in the square: a metal equestrian sculpture of King George I, sculpted by C Buchard.

The large Odeon Cinema on the west side of the square has a black tiled façade. It was built in the art-deco style in 1937, designed by Harry Weedon (1887-1970), who designed many other cinemas in the 1930s. It was built on the site of the big Alhambra Theatre, which opened as a music hall in 1858 and survived until its demolition in 1936. Today, there is a bar next to the Odeon. It bears the name ‘Lost Alhambra’.  

The Empire Theatre, now a casino and a cinema, is on the north side of the square. With its neo-classical façade, it was built in 1884 as a variety theatre. Its architects were Thomas Verity (1837-1891 and Thomas Lamb (1871-1942). This stands roughly on the western side of the land occupied by the former Leicester House. To the east of this plot, there stands another cinema, a fine example of the art-deco style, the Vue Cinema, which was built in 1938 and opened as the ‘Warner Theatre’. Its architects were Thomas Somerford (1881-1948) and EA Stone. The façade includes two bas-relief sculptures, one representing the spirit of sight and the other of sound, which were created by Edward Bainbridge Copnall (1903-1973), who was born in Cape Town in South Africa.

The Swiss Centre that used to stand at the northwest corner of the square was demolished a few years ago and was replaced by a newer building. The Centre contained a couple of expensive but good restaurants where Swiss specialities were served. The steak tartare and cheese fondue, which were served at the Centre, were particularly good. A clock with a carillon adorned with the crests of the Swiss Cantons is all that remains of that fine Swiss establishment.

At the south side of the square, facing the cheap theatre tickets booth, stands the Hampshire Hotel, currently devoid of guests. Before it became a hotel, this building housed the former Royal Dental Hospital. Opened in 1858 in Soho Square (number 22), it moved to the premises in Leicester Square in 1874 (https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/royaldental.html). In those days, the once fashionable Square had become a run-down part of London. In 1983, The Royal Dental Hospital was merged with Guys Hospital Dental School. When this happened, a dental friend of mine, who worked at Guys, suggested to me that the merged hospital should be renamed as ‘Roys’. In 1985, the Leicester Square hospital was closed. Soon after this, the former hospital was reconditioned to become a hotel.

Being the centre of London’s theatre and entertainment district, it is appropriate that recently the square has been adorned with life-size sculptures of famous entertainers such as Charlie Chaplin, Rowan Atkinson (with whom you can share a bench), Laurel & Hardy, Mary Poppins, and other familiar actors.   I cannot decide whether these frozen figures enhance the square, but as they are fairly discreetly positioned, they do add something to a place that has been home to well-known people since the beginning of the 18th century.

Had Leicester Square not been as empty as it was today, I would not have spent so long there to take photographs. I realised that this square, through which I have always preferred to hurry, has some interesting architecture and such a lovely statue. Although I enjoyed Leicester Square without the crowds, I look forward to healthier times when people can mix there, freely and happily.