This is how the Harrow Dominion looked when it opened in 1936
This is how it looked from 1962
And THIS is how it looked this week, as the metal cladding was removed after 59 years
And this is how it is forecast to look when fully restored (architects’ illustration)
The London borough of Harrow had a rare “moment” this week, with the unveiling of one of its most notable buildings after 59 years of being hidden away from public view. And what an eye-opener it was!
The Dominion was actually the second notable cinema building to open in the North West London borough.
The first, in September 1933, was A P Starkey’s pioneering Odeon South Harrow. This is the building which experts agree was the first to create and crystallise in the public mind the Odeon house style. This striking use of cream faience tiling across vast expanses of facade, with clean lines and bold spatial juxtapositions, further enhanced at night by extensive use of neon to delineate shapes and volumes- dubbed “night architecture” – the style was later to be developed and expanded upon by other architects.
And now on to the main feature of this article. The Dominion Cinema opened on 9th January 1936, and its architect was Frank Ernest Bromige. Built for promoters W.C. Dawes & A. Bacal for the independent Hammond Dawes circuit, in conjunction with the Lou Morris circuit, this large super cinema was planned to be named Ritz Cinema, but for reasons unknown actually opened as the Dominion. On opening night the audience enjoyed not only films but also an on-stage orchestra and three live variety acts. The venue was built to accommodate the then-prevalent mix of films and live variety acts known as cine-variety, which is why it was generously equipped with a large stage, flytower and twelve dressing rooms.
The original seating capacity was for over 2,000 in stalls and circle levels, very large by any standards and certainly for a London suburb. (For reference, a new build standard suburban cinema of the 1930s would seat somewhere between 1000 and 1500, rarely larger). The Dominion was also equipped with a large and spacious cafe/restaurant which was open all day to the general public, not just cinemagoers. The adjoining Dominion Parade (not connected to the building of the cinema, which you can see off to the left on the picture below) was comprised of flats built above a parade of shops, the most popular by far being the Dominion Fish Bar, a very good fish and chip shop which did a roaring trade for decades after the cinema’s opening.
The Dominion was by far the largest cinema in the area, and from opening proved a big hit – in fact, within a month of opening it had been purchased to become part of the ABC circuit. The Dominion Harrow was sold to ABC by Dawes and Bacal as a pair, together with its sister cinema, the Dominion in Southall, which had opened in October 1935, which as you can probably tell was designed by the same architect, F E Bromige.
In the 1930s, the burgeoning era of cinema building, it was not uncommon for independent promoters to find good sites and build substantial cinemas only to then sell them on to one of the major circuits, and then start their process all over again. It was one of the main reasons that the big circuits got bigger so quickly in the 1930s – they often bought others’ completed cinemas, and sometimes swallowed smaller circuits whole! At that time it was quite common for cinemas to be bought by the major circuits just weeks, or in some instances days before they opened, sometimes with an accompanying sudden change of name.
We must remember here that during the thirties, ABC was in a perpetual battle with Odeon, Gaumont and smaller independent circuits for expansion. Scouts were always out looking for sites to build new cinemas, and the deadlines, finance and design requirements they faced could often be very tight indeed.
The financing of cinemas was subject to fluctuations caused by both internal and external factors, as in any financial operation. ABC, being a very cost-conscious company, were not much in favour of the extra attractions of stage performances when added to the movies, but at the Dominion they continued to book variety acts for a while- partly because the 1937 Granada down the road occasionally featured stage acts and the Dominion could not be seen to be being “out-done”. However, at the end of January 1938 all variety acts were dropped from London ABCs, effectively ending the Dominion’s stage life after just two years. ABC’s head John Maxwell, like Odeon’s Oscar Deutsch, was of the view that variety didn’t help the box-office at all. While a good film drew good audiences, good variety couldn’t help a bad film, so variety was deemed either ineffective or unneccessary.
The Dominion’s facade was constructed incorporating a large amount of curved glass windows in the very fashionable thirties Crittall-style window construction. All of the windows were lit from within at night, giving the cinema an equally impressive streetscape presence at night as it had in the day.
The large windows in the centre of the facade under the name display also served to bring large amounts of daylight into the cafe/restaruant which was situated on the first floor, directly above the entrance foyer. Large illuminated display boards either side of these windows advertised the current film and stage attractions.
Just before we carry on with the Dominion story, I want to quickly mention the third exciting building to open in the borough of Harrow, which was just a few months after the Dominion, in October 1936, when Rayners Lane greeted its new Grosvenor Cinema, designed once again by Frank Ernest Bromige. A modest 1235-seater, it nevertheless also had extensive stage facilities – and a sinuous, exciting design both inside and out. (Odeon bought this cinema in May 1937 and it made an ideal addition to Odeon’s ever-expanding circuit of new, streamlined cinemas).
Harrow’s flurry of large cinema building concluded in 1937 with the opening of the Harrow Granada, built within sight of the Dominion.
Back to the Dominion/ABC now. In 1962, in response to falling cinema attendances and the rise of television, a sweeping wave of modernisation attempted to give an updated look to ABC’s ageing cinema stock, and their preferred solution was to clad many of their cinemas in blue sheet metal, creating nondescript box-like facades, which while it may have made them feel more up to date, also made them rather boring. As the Dominion/ABC’s facade was so huge, the cladding was reduced in height so that the top of the finned towers poked out through the top, giving passers-by a tantalising glimpse of what lay underneath – for 59 years.
Decades came and went, and cinemas changed hands, never more often than in the late 80s and 90s. The Dominion, now titled ABC Harrow, had been split horizontally in 1972, with the old stalls functioning as a bingo club and the old circle formed the new cinema. The old cafe/restaurant area became home to the Guy Hayward School of Dancing for some years, accessed by the doors in the right-hand tower. In time, a further screen was added in the cafe/restaurant area, after the dancing school moved out, and eventually the building was sold off to an independent chain, the Safari, (who also bought the ABC in West Croydon at the same time) screening Indian movies, with a church occupying the earlier bingo club space in the old stalls. The lease had been up some ago before negotiations began to redevelop the site for housing and the work of the Cinema Theatre Association, an organisation I have been part of for many years, put their skilled and dedicated team of Caseworkers to work.
While the cinema had been on the CTA’s watch list for many years, it was when the writing looked to be on the wall for the venue that the CTA stepped in and discussed listing the building with the local Council.
I should add here that Bromige’s other cinema in Rayners Lane was Grade II* listed way back in 1986, but the Dominion had muddled along unrecognised and unlisted- simply because of the lack of understanding of the building due to the cladding and other internal insertions which hid so much of the original structure. The Council argued that there was not enough left of the original fabric of the building to warrant listing. The CTA arranged a site visit with the Council and with the help of the then-occupants, spent several hours on-site with very well-researched and documented evidence, were able to demonstrate that not only was there enough of the building left to consider listing, it was practically intact! The Council duly responded and locally listed the building.
We continued to fight for retention of the complete building. On behalf of the CTA, I myself had a one-to-one meeting with the Council leader, Graham Henson, who shared with me several happy memories of going to the Dominion himself as a youngster. It was clear that he appreciated the building, but with the pressure of central government quotas demanding new homes to be built, he found himself unable to square the circle of keeping the complete building – but was enthusiastic about the restoration of the facade being a condition of redevelopment. He could see what an impressive presence this would be on the High Street and was genuinely looking forward to the restoration as much as we were.
Time went on and the owners sold the site to a developer and then the battle was for how much of the building could be saved. As in all negotiations, what we would like and what we get are two different things, and the negotiations boiled down to accepting the loss of the auditorium in return for renovation and restoration of the facade and its immediately connecting internal structures.
The CTA placed many conditions upon acceptance of the planned development; conditions which were founded in years of understanding of the realities of attaching new builds to an old frontage. It may be these conditions that finally manage to save the Dominion’s facade for future generations to enjoy.
The plan involves another stipulation by the CTA – that a full and complete photographic record is kept of the internal spaces and surviving detail before they are demolished to make way for the new build of flats behind the original facade.
And so, on Monday of this week, the blue metal sheeting came down after fifty years, to reveal – well, a building that had had no maintenance for sixty years! Its grey because its dirty, its got bits of metal sticking out of it and its riddled with indentationa sn pock-marks. But then how would you look if you’d had sixty years of neglect?!
But what’s interesting is to see the looks on the faces of passers-by, finally registering a building that they had only seen as a blue box for so many years.
Bromige’s elaborate and monumental facade certainly dominates the area in which it is situated. What is fascinating is that wherever you look, curves dominate. His designs must have pushed the builders who were tasked to bring them to life. Not only were his designs elaborate, the combination of extensive, bespoke glazing together with utilisation of relatively new forms of construction such as moulded concrete surely tested builders of the 1930s to their limits. Sadly very little of Bromige’s unique and inspiring work remains, which is why this survival (at least in part) is so important.
This also underlines the importance of making your voice heard in your locality. Wherever you have a much-loved or distinctive cinema, theatre or other entertainment building, its important to make your voice heard. The best way to do that is to join an organisation who campaigns and works to keep these local treasures from being bulldozed. The Cinema Theatre Association, the Theatres Trust, and many smaller local organisations are all good places to add your support . make your voice heard. The greater the memberships of these organisations, the bigger voice we have with local planners, developers and councils, and therefore the more forcefully we can speak for you. So please, show your support and join an organisation and lend them your voice. Strength in numbers works!
To find out more about the campaign and preservation work of the Cinema Theatre Association, click on their logo below
Returning to the Dominion as it stands right now, it needs a lot of care and attention, which it will now be receiving. The specially-moulded concrete facade and bespoke Crittall windows are examples not only of craftsmanship that we’ll never see again, but also a reminder of the days when going to a movie was an experience- a big night out.
In no way will the redevelopment’s proposed four-screen Art House-style cinema of 100-seaters ever compare with the thrill of watching a movie on a huge screen with 2500 others, it is at least a nod to the building’s distinguished history.
And in these current days of slap-it-up, dull as a brick, all straight lines, Lego-like, inspiration-free building, it’s a reminder to us that architects used to have dreams too.
Here are a number of shots and close ups of this amazing facade which I took on Monday and Tuesday of this week, before it disappeared behind covers once more. I hope you’ll enjoy them. If you want to share them with others, please do- but as a courtesy, please ensure you use the credit “Photos by Gary Donaldson at UnrestrictedTheatre.co.uk”. Thank You.