A history of Whiteladies Road cinema the Picture House
Plans to convert Clifton's former cinema into flats have been criticised by Bristol Mayor George Ferguson.
The proposals to turn former Whiteladies Picture House into six flats and a gym were branded “inappropriate” by the elected Mayor, who warned: “The plans are not something that are badly done – it's badly conceived."
Mr Ferguson said he would like to see the Picture House, which closed in November 2001, reinstated as a cinema or turned into a theatre or performance venue.
The history of the Picture House dates back to 1920, when architects James Henry LaTrobe and Thomas Henry Weston decided to bring moving pictures to Clifton.
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According to the Whiteladies Picture House campaign, by then “nearly every suburb of the city boasted a cinema, however the residents of Clifton resisted attempts to open one in BS8, believing the new art form to be rather ‘low brow’ and a passing phase”.
Undeterred, the pair acquired what was then a nunnery on the corner of Whiteladies Road and Melrose Place. The first and second floors of the mid nineteenth-century terraced house were incorporated into the design of the new building, while the rest of the site was overhauled.
Building work on the venue - which boasted a 1,298-seat auditorium, a large foyer, a ‘Rendezvous’ café, a ballroom, Billiards room and roof terrace - started in early 1921, and was completed by November.
The Picture House was opened by the Duchess of Beaufort on November 29, and Pollyanna was the first film screened.
James LaTrobe would not live to see the cinema become a roaring success – one month after its opening, on December 30, he died.
The cinema soon attracted audiences from across the city, and the owner of its main competitor, the Triangle Cinema, bought it in the late 1920s.
The venue, which survived World War II, grew in size in the years that followed. A much larger Cinemascope screen was installed in the 1950s, and the original balcony was in 1957 extended to increase the seating capacity to around 1,500.
Fast forward to 1978 and “drastic action was taken for the Picture House to stay in the game” amid fierce competition from new multiplex venues, the campaign website explains.
The balcony was adapted into a second mini cinema, while the ground floor was split into two separate screen rooms.
“It was during this time that much of the original features became hidden from view,” the website says. “The crazy-paving floor of the foyer was buried under carpet, the ballroom was divided up into offices and the beautiful plasterwork in the main auditorium was neglected.”
The venue, named for a time ABC, became part of the Odeon group after undergoing a number of ownership and name changes in the 1980s and 1990s. In February 1999 it was Grade II-listed.
But just two years later, almost 80 years to the day it opened, the cinema closed its doors. The last film was screened on Sunday December 16, 2001, and the site was sold to property company Medinbrand.
Odeon put a covenant on the building stating it could never be used as a cinema or for theatrical purposes, prompting an outcry from locals. The group campaigning for it to be a cinema again have previously had the covenant waived by Odeon bosses, who were persuaded their plans were not a threat to Odeon's other business interests in the city.
There have in recent years been a number of fervent campaigns to see the venue resurrected.
In December 2009 a petition signed by Nick Park from Aardman Animations was launched to save the former cinema, and the following year plans were unveiled to convert it into a theatre.
David Fells, manager of Clifton College's Redgrave Theatre, outlined his £2 million vision for the venue, after successive plans to transform it into a shop, church, restaurant, bar and small cinema all failed to come to fruition.
The following year the owner of the restaurant next door to the former cinema spoke of his desire to see the building put to use, and in February 2012 it was revealed two local film enthusiasts were in talks with developers and financiers over plans to reopen the cinema.
In June 2012 a petition was launched in the hope of reinstating the venue.
Later that month the central planning committee was split on whether to grant approval for plans convert the Grade II listed building into five flats and a gym. An inquiry opened on Tuesday after the building's owners Medinbrand contested Bristol City Council's decision to refuse plans.
Campaigners want the listed building to be re-opened as a cinema or community venue.
Whiteladies Picture House: a timeline
1920: Architects James Henry LaTrobe and Thomas Henry Weston decide to bring a cinema to Clifton, and begin searching for a suitable location
1921: Building work on the plot, on the corner of Whiteladies Road and Melrose Place, begins, and is completed by the winter. The Duchess of Beaufort opens the Picture House on November 29. A month later, James LaTrobe dies.
Early 1950s: A Cinemascope screen is installed
1957: The original balcony is extended to increase the seating capacity to around 1,500
1978: The cinema is turned into a three-screen multiplex
1999: The venue is Grade II-listed in February
2001: The cinema closes its doors in November and the site is sold to Medinbrand