16 July 2014

Hurdle cleared in saving historic theatre building

Councillors have said they are ‘minded to grant’ plans to convert a Grade 2-star listed theatre in Brighton into an eight-screen cinema – subject to conditions. 

English Heritage says the move offers the best chance of preserving the building. 

Brighton & Hove City Council’s planning committee this afternoon (July 16 2014) was also ‘minded to grant’ listed buildings consent for changes to the Hippodrome in Middle Street, built in 1897.  However because of objections from the Victorian Society, the council will refer the issue to the government to see if it wishes to decide the listed buildings consent application itself.  As such the project does not yet have a final go-ahead.

As well as the cinema screens, the building would house four restaurants.  Works would include fully restoring all ornate plasterwork created by famous theatre designer Frank Matcham.  Nearby Hippodrome House would also be restored to accommodate one of the restaurants.  The Middle Street façade would be renovated. 

A new mezzanine floor would be installed across the main auditorium, with three cinema screens below and a restaurant above.  There would be a new connection to Dukes Lane to improve access.

The building’s main feature is a vast circular auditorium with a Dome built to resemble a travelling circus.  This, and the other most historically-important areas of the building would be retained, while less significant later additions would be demolished.

A new extension would be built to the north.  Another to the rear would house five more screens.

The Hippodrome was built as an ice rink then converted to a circus four years later.  By the 1960s it was a live music venue, and hosted shows by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

The venue closed in the 1960s at which point it was converted to a bingo hall, which closed in 2007.  It has been empty ever since and is included on ‘buildings at risk’ registers held by the city council and English Heritage because of its poor condition.

Many local campaigners wanted the venue restored as a theatre.  However in a report to the planning committee the District Valuer said a theatre is unlikely to be viable.  It pointed out other local auditoria operated at below capacity or survived only with a subsidy.

In the report, heritage experts said that while the conversion would harm the historic fabric of the structure, this had to be balanced with the public benefits and preservation of the building.  

Committee chair Councillor Phelim Mac Cafferty said:  “The scheme was approved at committee today but we now need to see whether the government wish to call it in. 

“In an ideal world we would have had an application to restore this building as a theatre - something that councillors at committee repeatedly said they would have preferred. The sad reality of the situation is that we didn't have that today.

"The committee accepted that a theatre is unlikely to be viable.  The owners are fully entitled to apply for a cinema and the council is obliged to consider it. 

“The committee felt that on balance it was better to have the building preserved as a cinema than deteriorating as an empty shell. If a viable theatre proposal comes forward in the future the conversion is designed to be reversible.”