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The building today. Photo by Laura Mackenzie (BPH)

Back in January the Blue Plaque Hacks team reported on the happy news that the old White Hart in Clapton had been bought by new owners and was soon to re-open as a community-orientated pub. Unfortunately the Hart was still very much a building site when BPH walked past it this week but in the meantime we are able to report on recent developments surrounding the building next door: the former Clapton Cinematograph turned Palace Pavilion nightclub turned new home of the St Mary of Zion Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Before we get to the crux of the recent developments a little context would probably be a good idea as the building in question has a rather long and complex history. Here goes…

The back story

The building when it was the Kenninghall Cinema. Photo courtesy of Julia Lafferty

As briefly mentioned in our previous post about the Hart, the Clapton Cinematograph Theatre on Lower Clapton Road was originally built in 1896 to be used as an assembly/function room for the pub next door. 14 years later the hall was converted into a cinema, first known as the Clapton Cinematograph and later as the Kenninghall Cinema. The cinema eventually closed in 1979 and re-opened in 1983 as a nightclub called “Dougie’s”. Unfortunately for the local community and plaquetivists everywhere however, the building later re-opened again as the Palace Pavilion nightclub and became the focus for a number of stabbings and shootings that took place between 2004-2006, lending Lower Clapton Road the nickname “Murder Mile”.

The building when it was still the Palace Pavilion. Photo by Emily Webber on Flickr

In May last year the local Ethiopian Orthodox church – which is currently housed in the St James’ Anglican church next door and has been without a building on its own for 38 years – bought the building for £700,000 following its confiscation by the Royal Bank of Scotland from former Palace Pavilion owner, Ken Edwards. At the same time that this sale was being negotiated, another interested party, Friends of Clapton Cinematograph Theatre, were negotiating with Mr Edwards – who they believed to still be the owner of the property.

Are you still with us? Not long to go now!

The Friends of Clapton Cinematograph Theatre group is made up of Hackney plaquetivists who want to see the building re-opened as a community cinema and, according to its website “an educational and training facility for local people”.  Its members have been campaigning for their cause since 2006 when the Palace Pavilion was finally forced to close its doors after losing its license. The following year the group launched an on-line petition to restore the building to its former glory as a cinema, which has since gone on to collect 736 signatures, including 20 in the past week alone.

From nightclub to church

On 25 January of this year the building’s current owners, St Mary of Zion Church, submitted a planning application to Hackney Council requesting that permission be given to convert the building into a church of the “ancient Ethopian” style:

“Proposal: Change of use from night club (sui generis) to a place of worship with ancillary youth and community centre (class D1) and the erection of a two storey rear extension to create a 2 bed key workers flat, together with external alterations including the remodelling of the front facade with new double entrance doors, new windows and dome and installation of new windows, doors and rooflights to the rear and side elevations. Opening hours 8 am to 10pm Monday to Sunday.” 

The front of a Clapton Cinematograph Theatre programme from 1912 which has the only images of the original facade and auditorium so far discovered. Image courtesy of Hackney Archives

Unfortunately however, a row has now broken out between St Mary of Zion and members of the Friends of Clapton Cinematograph group, who say the proposed plans threaten the building’s heritage. They also accuse the church of going back on its promise to return the building to its “former glory”. (In a letter sent to local councillor Rick Muir last summer the church said it wanted to “enhance” the building’s original Edwardian features, which include the former cinema’s ticket office, a gilded barrel-vaulted roof and traditional “proscenium” theatre arch.)

In turn St Mary of Zion says it is being “hounded” by the heritage campaigners.

Tensions

Speaking to BPH’s Laura Mackenzie, Paul Wolde Amlak Aiken, assistant secretary to the church’s parish council said: “I can’t understand why we’re being hounded in this way. Our redesign does not remove any of the old features. It’s an annoyance and disrespectful.

“We didn’t choose this site for a particular reason. We needed a building, it came up on the market and we put in a bid. If they wanted to turn the church back into a cinema then why didn’t they buy it?”

In response, the Friends of Clapton Cinematograph’s secretary Julia Lafferty said: “When we invited church representatives to talk with us last summer, we had high hopes that they would respect the fact that the building was in a conservation area and a valued heritage asset. But since that time the shutters have come down. Local councillors and heritage groups who have asked to be able to visit the building have been refused. When invited to attend a Clapton Conference public meeting last week to discuss their current proposals, a church representative failed to turn up.

A poster for the Clapton Cinematograph Theatre. Image courtesy of Julia Lafferty

“Local people are very disappointed that the church’s written commitment to restore the old cinema “to its former glory” and “enhance its original features” has been abandoned in favour of an unsympathetic conversion which carves up the auditorium – an integral part of the cinema’s historic character – and adorns the facade of the building with a coloured polycarbonate arch and dome and double glazed tinted units and aluminium windows.

“Ominously there is no mention in the planning application of the fate of the richly decorated gilded barrel-vaulted roof, the original proscenium arch and other decorative features.”

Heritage

According to Julia, the former Clapton Cinematograph is one of the earliest purpose-built cinemas in the country* and pre-dates nationally-listed cinemas such as the Electric in Portobello Road and the Ritzy in Brixton. Despite being in a conservation area however, the building itself remains un-listed though is currently being considered for listing by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

The screen inside Destiny Church/Central Cinema in Edinburgh. Image courtesy of Julia Lafferty

Julia and the rest of the Friends of Clapton Cinematograph Theatre group are eager to see the building go the same way as other historic cinemas across the country that have been taken over by churches.

She explained: “There are churches who have acquired old cinemas and have been very responsible about preserving their historic character and opening them up to the local community. One such example is the old Central Cinema in Edinburgh which does bear some resemblance to the Clapton Cinematograph. This is owned by Destiny Church who run weekly cinema screenings for local people.”

So what now?

The opportunity for people to comment on St Mary of Zion’s plans for the building ended last month and the church is now waiting for a date to be set by the council for the plans to be discussed and voted on. BPH will be sure to keep you updated on any developments and in the meantime let us know what you think in the comments below!

*This information conflicts slightly with BPH’s previous belief that the building had originally been built to be used as a function room for the adjoining pub – is anyone able to clear this up for us?

 

FURTHER READING
To find out more about the former Clapton Cinematograph building and its history you can check out our stack of bookmarked links* on the bookmarking site Delicious: http://www.delicious.com/stacks/view/U1Wzbf
There you’ll be able to find all of the sources linked to in the article above in one place, plus more reading. That should keep you going for at least a couple of hours.
*For those of you who aren’t au fait with the practise of bookmarking on the web, it basically means saving web pages you like to a bookmarking website which will save all of your favourite web pages in one place. What’s even more exciting is that you can follow fellow bookmarkers and check out what they’re reading on the web too!
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