Harrow’s Dominion revealed – after 59 years!

This is how the Harrow Dominion looked when it opened in 1936

This is how it looked from 1962 (this photo dated 1969)

Photo courtesy NW London Time Machine on Twitter

And THIS is how it looked this week, April 2021, 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 Arthur 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. (Sadly the Odeon was closed in 1972 and mostly demolished).

South Harrow Odeon 1933

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 Dominion’s cavernous original auditorium

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.

Just returning to the subject of capacity for a moment, the original announced capacity was 2,500, which is the number that appears in the annual index of operating cinemas, the Kine Year Book. However, as my CTA colleague the esteemed cinema and film author Allen Eyles points out, cinemas often announced themselves in extravagant publicity with over-inflated capacities. By the late 1940s, the cinema industry bible The Kine Year Book reports the Dominion as seating 2,014 which seems to be a more reliable number. (Thanks to my CTA colleague and tirelessly dedicated editor of cinematreasures.org Ken Roe, for helping with this information).

An aerial view of the Dominion from June 1937 demonstrating the large footprint of the building together with its flytower. This angle also allows us to see the way that the facade’s finned towers at each end were angled outwards to better catch the sight of passersby along the rather narrow main road.

At over 2000 seats, 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 by the photograph below, was designed by the same architect, F E Bromige.

Dominion Southall in October 1935. You can see strong similarities in design to Harrow’s Dominion. The circular, very Deco style of lettering here was later used on the facade of the Grosvenor, Rayners Lane.

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.

There seem to be no photos of the Harrow Dominion at night, so here is the Southall Dominion, showing the use of neon and glass windows to create “night architecture” which cinemas did so well in the 1930s (apologies for the poor quality of this image- the best I could find).

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.

Rayners Lane Grosvenor, opened in October 1936, also designed by F E Bromige

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).

An idea of the internal and external lighting used to create “night architecture” in a photo of the Grosvenor Rayners Lane in a reincarnation as the Grosvenor Cine/Bar around 2000 (photo courtesy Allen Eyles)

Harrow’s flurry of large cinema building concluded in 1937 with the opening of the Harrow Granada, built within sight of the Dominion. Still standing (as Gold’s Gym) in 2021, the Granada had a surprisingly plain, flat facade with a large and comfortable auditorium which followed the standard Granada template closely, built with an organ , full stage facilities and a flytower.

Back to the Dominion/ABC now. In 1962, in response to falling cinema attendances and the continuing rise of television, a sweeping wave of modernisation across the circuit attempted to give an updated look to ABC’s ageing (and under-maintained) 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 (another 1962 change), had been split horizontally in 1972, with the old stalls functioning as a bingo club and the original circle level forming the new cinema. The old cafe/restaurant area on the first floor, above the foyer, had been home to the The Court School of Ballroom Dancing in the late 1950s for some years, accessed by the doors in the right-hand tower. In time, a further screen was added in the cafe/restaurant area, quite some time 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 for some time before negotiations began in 2018 to redevelop the site for housing and the Cinema Theatre Association, the UK’s leading authority on cinema buildings, 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 decisively 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.

They continued to fight for retention of the complete building. 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 was facing the pressure of central government quotas demanding new homes to be built. He was, however, supportive and 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 I was.

Time went on and the owners sold the site to a developer and then the CTA’s battle was for how much of the building could be saved. As in all negotiations, what you want and what you 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! It’s grey because its dirty, it’s got bits of metal sticking out of it and it’s riddled with indentations and pock-marks. But then how would you look if you’d suffered sixty years of neglect?!

But what’s interesting is to stand and watch the expressions on the faces of passers-by, finally registering a building that they had dismissed 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 they have to negotiate with local planners, developers and councils, and therefore the more forcefully they can speak up for you. So please, show your support and join an organisation and lend them your voice. Strength in numbers works!

Without the CTA to fight for it, I’m pretty sure that the Dominion would be history by now. I thank them for their dedication and effort in fighting to save the last scraps of the UK’s civic pride.

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. Where patrons could be warm and dry, and experience top-notch entertainment for a relatively small cost. A chance to leave their cares behind for a few hours, in surroundings that were so much more luxurious than their own homes. No wonder the cinema was a habit some indulged in several times a week.

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 over 2000 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 all that architects used to have dreams too.


A NOTE ON PHOTOS: Please note that photos have been credited where there sources are known. If you have any other information about image sources, together with evidence of ownership, I would be glad to hear from you and adjust or add the appropriate accreditation. Contact me at hello@unrestrictedtheatre.co.uk


PHOTO GALLERY

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.

Full exterior looking right to left, showing monumental scale and overall composition
Right hand tower
Right hand tower, left side detail
You can see here the elegant design of the Crittall windows and how they opened
Left-side tower with “dummy panel” space at left
Central facade with spaces for (originally-lit) advertising display boxes either side of the large central windows which flooded light into the first floor cafe/restuarant (If you look at the facade of the Southall Dominion, you can see they were the same on both cinema facades)
Full facade showing at left the space which was occupied by the “dummy window panel” (now lost) in left tower
Close up of right hand lower tower to see the design of the decorative grille, but also note that the right hand window is open. Left hand panel allows to you to see the translucent, rippled glass used in all the vertical tower glazing.

24 Replies to “Harrow’s Dominion revealed – after 59 years!”

  1. I remember going to the Dominion Harrow to see
    ‘Arena’ in 3D in 1953 when I was ten.
    I don’t remember much about the plot but do remember
    things flying out of the screen. Most cinemas at the time used
    3D glasses which had red and green lenses but at the Dominion you got clear Polaroid ones. Harrow was the place for new technology at the time as I remember going to the Granada in the same year and seeing ‘The Robe’ in Cinemascope and surround sound which was quite an experience.

  2. Thanks for the article! I used to go the ABC when I was young in the 1980’s.
    I remember seeing Superman and E.T there as well as many other films which I fondly remember. I never knew that behind the banal blue box lurked a magnificent Art Deco facade. Your article and photos where very interesting.

    1. Dear Minesh, thank you for taking the time to comment on my writing, it means a lot to me and I am delighted that you enjoyed it. You were absolutely not alone Minesh, in that the original facade hadn’t been seen for so long, people simply forgot what was behind the blue metal. That included the Council, which had of course gone through many different administrations since the sixties, and it was only thanks to the Cinema Theatre Association taking the Coucil representatives on an inspection tour, where they were able to access behind the sheet metal, that anyone realised the true extent of how much survived. This then led to the Council agreeing to locally list the facade, which was useful leverage in its retention when the site was sold on and the flats option became the likely reality. As a Harrow resident of the same era as you, I’m glad the article has rekindled some happy memories for you. All the best to you.

  3. This is a wonderful site, Gary, and I was particularly interested in the Rayner’s Lane building where I was General Manager for a time in the hot summer of 1976. I know that Rayner’s Lane was chosen to represent a cinema of the time in the BBC-tv series PENNIES FROM HEAVEN.
    Your suggestion that we join the Cinema Theatre Association is one which I plan to take up in the next couple of days.

    1. Thank you very much for your comments, Harry, I’m so glad you enjoy my site! The borough of Harrow is the only place in the world which has two surviving Bromige cinema buildings (although the Dominion is sadly now just the facade). I well remember many happy cinema trips to Rayners Lane – we may well have passed each other in the foyer! The CTA has a lively and engaged membership, and the largest archive about cinema buildings in the UK – perhaps you might like to contribute your own recollections of being in the business- their archive is an invaluable resource consulted by researchers across the world. I am sure your memories would be very welcomed. I am very happy to make an introduction if you’d like me to. Once again, thanks so much for taking the time to comment and share your remembrances- it’s very kind of you! All the best to you.

  4. I was a member of Harrow Light Operatic Company in the 1960’s and it was wonderful performing on the stage to packed audiences for 7 performances. We did two shows a year and was great fun. Running up and down the stairs to our dressing rooms between scenes and under the stage for make-up and refreshments. As the stage wasn’t very deep we were unable to get behind the scenery to change entrances so sometimes we ran out of the stage door and along the back to enter the other side. Not so good in bad weather wearing a long dress and bustle or a scantily clad costume!!! All happy memories. I also had attended Ballroom Dancing classes upstairs. Looking forward seeing the theatre restored to its previous glory – what an undertaking.

    1. Thank you for sharing your interesting memories, Barbara. It is good to know that the facade at least will (hopefully) be fully restored, although sadly the rest is lost. Perhaps if the current enthusiasm for recycling /reuse and adaptation of buildings (rather than demolition) had been further advanced a few years ago, we might have saved the whole building. As it is we still have something. All good wishes to you.

    2. Interesting to find the Dominion was never demolished, thankfully.
      I renember going with a school group to orchestra concerts there, c. 1950 – 53 I think; the conductor was Muir Matheson.
      I found this article while searching for Harrow Theatre – do you remember it also? Have you any memories of the theatre to share?
      Here I saw “The Pirates of Penzance” and can still remember the scene with the trembling policemen – I have been a Gilbert & Sullivan opera fan ever since!
      It was very disappointing the site became a supermarket.
      I now live in Dumfries, Scotland, where the big cinema closed only a year or two ago – a great pity as it was a very fine cinema indeed. Does the Cinema Theatre Asociation know of it? We still have the 70 seat Robert Burns cinema in Dumfries, thankfully.

      1. Hello David and thanks for your note. Although we can celebrate the facade of the Dominion being retained, sadly everything behind it has been demolished and flats are now under construction on the site.
        Regarding your memories of the Harrow Theatre, called the Coliseum, I am in process of writing an article about it so do visit again in the coming months- we’d love to have your comments and memories. I’m sure the CTA is aware of the cinemas you mention, and all cinemas in Scotland as they have a very active CTA Scotland team. Thanks again for your comments.

  5. A fine article, thanks. It mentions a ‘complete photographic record’. Is this happening? Is it publicly available?

    1. Thank you for your comments Malcolm, and I am glad you enjoyed the article. The photographic recording was a stipulation imposed by the CTA on Harrow Council. I have no further information on that, and would suggest that either of those bodies would be the best next ports of call if you wish to pursue this further. As the body of the building has now been demolished, I certainly hope that this work was done! I have a personal record of the building’s progress from the date of this article onwards, but that is not publicly available.

  6. Have you any information on any of the package tour pop shows that took place particularly in the sixties? I recall getting Cliff Richard and Shadows autographs at the stage door probably around 63/64.

    1. Hi Tony, and I’m grateful for your comment, which inspired me to have a good old rummage around the fabulous curiosity shop that is the internet. And I’ve found some interesting stuff for you! Cliff and the Shads played Harrow ABC on March 31st 1964 There’s even a setlist at this fascinating site https://www.setlist.fm/venue/abc-theatre-harrow-england-bd425ea.html They don’t have a setlist breakdown for the show yet- maybe you could help them? I think its fair to say that Harrow’s Granada took most of the concerts and one-nighters. If you’re interested to find out more about concerts and one-nighters way back then, you can visit this excellent site to find lots of great details of shows from 1956 to 1967 https://www.bradfordtimeline.co.uk/music.htm Just also to say that those reading this piece are welcome to drop their own memories of the Dominion/ABC in the comments for others to enjoy.

    1. Thank you for your comments and I am delighted you enjoyed the article. Crittall windows were an integral part of so many memorable building designs of the thirties and it is fantastic to see they are still valued to this day.

  7. Currently the developers have managed to knock a large chunk of the facade down and it is my belief, being the cynic that I am, that this will be an excuse to knock the rest down and not bother with a resto. I would like nothing better than to be proved wrong about this though.

    1. Thank you for your comment and interest, Hazel. The Cinema Theatre Association keeps a weekly watch on the site, and where problems have arisen, they have rapidly stepped in to alert those who can help. There is a very complex backstory about selling on of the project, etc, etc which muddies plans, proposals and permissions. We have all had disquiet about the fate of this facade, and while it is indeed missing two substantial pieces, both the towers and the central feature remain. There are too many people who just moan about things in this country who never get off their arses to do something about them, and there are others who make their voices heard as best as they can – by using social media, joining campaigning groups like the CTA, the Art Deco Society, the 20th Century Society etc.. I am sure that we are both in the latter category. Yes, it’s easy to feel powerless and not bother, but just sometimes taking an active part in challenging developers works. I’m glad we both want the same outcome for this unique facade.

  8. I used to dance there in the upstairs ballroom. This was in the late ’50s/early 60’s. We were taught a new step in the interval and I passed my ballroom exams there.

    1. Thanks for your memories, Patricia. The Court School of Ballroom Dancing was resident from the late fifties until the early seventies, I believe, but I’d be delighted to hear any firm dates from anyone who knows!

  9. Can,t help thinking the date is wrong for the renovation. I was born in 1959 and remember the old Dominion well, could see it from my bedroom window. More like late 1960’s early 1970’s ?

    1. Thank you for your comment, Martin. All of the dates are correct and have been verified across multiple sources for accuracy. To address your recollections, firstly, by “renovation” I take it that you are talking about the erection of the external cladding over the facade of the building, which did indeed happen in 1962 as part of a wider circuit programme. Secondly, if you saw a part of the old Dominion facade from your bedroom window after that time then it’s likely you saw the tops of the twin towers, which were left visible above the steel cladding, as you can see from the photo, and as mentioned in my article. From an elevated position – such as a bedroom window- then perhaps you saw even more of the top of the facade that others viewing at street level would not have seen. I am sure many youngsters would have loved such a view from their bedroom window!

  10. It went from looking like a movie palace to a USSR-style office building, and now, in its current, pre-restored state, a factory out of an old sci-fi movie. Happy to know it’s going back to its more or less original state.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Kevin, yes great news that it survived! But I like your descriptions! It’s certainly an extraordinary presence right now along the high street. One of my CTA colleagues also noted that it looked in its present state more like “a bombed-out decommissioned Soviet power station” I rather liked that description too! As you say, now the work starts on getting back to its original glory. Will look forward to sharing more news as the work continues.

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