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The former Forum cinema, Northenden

Phil Griffin revisits the source of his 1930s fixation, and invites fellow aficionados to see inside on Saturday

Published on October 23rd 2008.

The former Forum cinema, Northenden

The Forum cinema on Palatine Road in Northenden had the same structural engineers as Blackpool Tower. This was an outfit called Heenan and Froude. Only an architect will be interested in this fact (by and large, even engineers aren’t interested in engineers). One such is Roger Lord. He came out of retirement to lead legions of volunteers in the rewarding refurbishment of the Grade II listed 1935 Art Deco building that is now a Jehovah’s Witnesses Assembly Hall. What the congregation does in there is up to them. What they have done to the outside of the building is for you and me. And it is exemplary.

Roger Lord had worked for Manchester architects Cruickshank and Seward. They’ve been around since the 1920s and had a particular purple patch in the 1960s designing buildings such as the National Computing Centre on Oxford Road and the Renold Building for UMIST. Roger (who is a member of the congregation) wasn’t overly keen to get involved with the former cinema building when it was obviously due for refurbishment. He started to look at it afresh in 1996. The building, designed by architect Charles Hartley and completed in 1935, was listed in 2000. Quite apart from its status in folk memory, the former Forum cinema now has statutory protection.

I lived in Burnage. So it was a 169 and change for the 41 from Lapwing Lane to get to see Walt Disney’s Jungle Book three times in one day. I remember it well. However, I’m a bit embarrassed to learn that I must have been 17 at the time. So saying, the picture house itself has stayed in my mind, with its unfamiliar, exotic décor; a swirling sea of floor in the foyer, chromium banisters and highly coloured and modelled proscenium, balcony, walls and roof. It was a 1930s thing, and it entered my taste ducts to such a degree that all things 1930s became my thing everafter. 20 years later I moved into a 1930s flat, just down the road, opposite Wythenshawe Park.

For months now the building has been crawling with hardhat volunteers. I learn that Roger Lord has grown to love and admire the building and that his army of workers has restored it to such a degree that it may now be as solid and as shocking as it was 70-odd years ago. The front is the main story, but its sheer length and bulk, and the monumental scale of the fly-tower at the back make it notable architecture. The signature piece is down to the Blackpool Tower boys. Engineers Heenan and Froude made the giant projecting canopy fly over the ranked front doors. You might not know it, but Blackpool Tower and this Northenden canopy are both heroic cantilevers.

Now that I’ve got that anoraky architectural stuff off my chest I can say that the deco detailing on the refurbished building, some of it original, some purely invented, is refreshing to see. The windows and doors are distinctive. The rendered front and terrazzo steps are testimony to the attention to detail that the inter-war entertainment industry was prepared to pay.

This is no sort of multiplex. The Northenden Forum was, for years, the only civic or community building that Wythenshawe could claim. This coming Saturday, 25 October, from 10am to 5pm, it is open to the public. I guess memories will be jogged.

The sunburst rising from middle front is Roger Lord’s invention, and it sets off the piece. He’s also fired his imagination to create the circular panels with their waves of detail that are on either side of the front doors. The symmetry of the whole piece is complete. Roger tells me he’s even managed to get the balance back into some of the invisible detail at the back of the building.

Inside it no doubt does what the congregation needs it to do. There’s a full immersion baptism pool where the Wurlitzer organ used to be. There is plenty of gilt and colour, a great gold ceiling, and an all-Egyptian palette that Art Deco adopted following Carter’s discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings in 1922. There’s creative paintwork apeing split Maple timber detailing on doors. There’s even a fanciful new design to disguise the video projector slung below the balcony. The foyer with its double curving staircase is especially pleasing, even if it is dominated by a Jehovah’s Witness symbol that nearly overbalances the space. There are beautifully restored balustrade ironwork and chromium details. Light fittings have been forensically restored and even reinvented.

Fans of thirties cinemas will definitely want to see inside, and Saturday is your chance. The Northenden Forum may give a taste of what’s to come when the magnificent Stockport Plaza completes its restoration. I know little about Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I will not be taking their magazine. But I do know that they take serious responsibility for the complete restoration and refurbishment of a fine building that would otherwise have disappeared under a bland commercial office development some time ago. Congratulations and thanks to Roger Lord and all his Witness volunteers.

The former Forum cinema, Palatine Road, Northenden, will be open to the public on Saturday 25 October from 10am to 5pm.

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7 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

eddy rheadOctober 23rd 2008.

To a purist some of the 'art deco' repro is a bit cloying but the Witnesses are excellent custodians of this beautiful building. They obviously treasure their building and since the scaffolding has come down i'm guessing it hasnt looked as good since 1935. I only wish the Witnesses could be encouraged to take on more old buildings!

davidOctober 23rd 2008.

Amazing building, just a shame bout the Jehovah’s Witnesses!

Danny HaszardOctober 23rd 2008.

The Watchtower society (Jehovah's Witnesses) are buying and restoring many historic properties as they have Billions in assets to do so.Same with Scientology.

AnonymousOctober 23rd 2008.

Congratulations on such a wonderful job - now can someone please do the same for the Tatton cinema in Gatley. It's wonderful art deco frontage is under threat of demolition to be replaced by a concrete carbuncle. Does anyone want to buy it and do a fab restoration job. Is there anyone out there that collects art deco buildings?

meSeptember 5th 2010.

David, just wondering why it is a shame (a)bout the Jehovah's Witnesses?!

David McGeeAugust 16th 2014.

the jehovahs witnesses are the nicest people you could meet and are the ones responsible for restoring many historic properties not with billions in assets but millions of jehovahs witness volunteers with there own hard earned cash and own skills not just for themselves but for all people .

AnonymousNovember 15th 2014.

I was an engineering apprentice with Lucas in 1973. I remember Heenan and Froude as inventors and makers of the water brake dynamometer, used to test car engines. H&F started in Manchester and moved to a splendid HQ in Worcester. They ended in 1986.

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