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.
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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