Home Business and economy Plans move forward to restore Prescot Picture Palace Cinema to its former glory

Plans move forward to restore Prescot Picture Palace Cinema to its former glory

by Emily Maguire

The rejuvenation of one of the earliest cine-variety houses in the country has taken a major step forward with the appointment of specialist conservation-accredited architects Purcell.

Purcell will lead on the repair and restoration of Prescot’s newly Grade II listed former Picture Palace Cinema, to bring the building back to its former glory.

The work will focus on the exterior of the building and historical photographs will help to recreate some of the cinema’s design features, which were originally created in the flamboyant Edwardian Neo-Baroque style.

Earlier this year (May 2021) the building was designated as Grade II listed on advice by Historic England, acknowledging its significance as one of the earliest recognised cine-variety houses in England. The building has particular historic interest as it represents a watershed moment in the rapid transition from music halls to cinema.

Much of the original design and layout of the former cinema have been preserved, including its landmark façade and barrel-ceilinged auditorium. Some original fixtures and fittings also remain intact, including early- 20th century cinema seating, cinema doors, raked floors and a purpose-built fire-resistant projection room.

It is a rare example of its type, dating from the earliest phase of purpose-built cinemas in the country.

Councillor Tony Brennan, Knowsley’s Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Economic Development said: “The restoration of the Prescot Picture Palace is single biggest project we’ve undertaken as part of the HSHAZ. The architectural heritage of this iconic building is incomparable, and the appointment of Purcell to sensitively restore the picture house is a milestone moment in its resurrection and one that is very much welcomed by the council and the community alike.”

Opened in 1912, the Prescot Picture Palace was the town’s first ever picture house. After it closed in 1957 the building was used as a warehouse, bingo hall and more recently a community church, before being acquired by Knowsley Council in 2021 as part of the wider redevelopment of Prescot through the Prescot High Street Heritage Action Zone (HSHAZ) – which is jointly funded by Knowsley Council and Historic England.

Damien Woolliscroft, Senior Conservation Architect, Purcell commented: “We are delighted to be appointed by Knowsley Council to lead the conservation fabric repairs to Prescot Picture Palace. The former cinema has recently been listed at Grade II by Historic England, demonstrating the significance of the building at a national level. The completion of the external fabric repairs will secure the building in preparation for later internal refurbishment works.”

Historic England’s Tamsin Cooke said: “The renovation and reuse of the old cinema is one of the main objectives for Prescot’s High Street Heritage Action Zone, so we are excited that the repair project is about to begin. This is a crucial step for the future of this special building, and we can’t wait to see what comes next.”

About the Prescot Picture Palace

The former Prescot Picture Palace Cinema at 8-14 Kemble Street was established in 1912. The Prescot Picture Palace Company Ltd purchased number 12 to 14 Kemble Street (a pair of amalgamated C19 town houses) and plans were approved by the Urban District Council for their conversion into a cine-variety theatre in September of that year.

At its opening it was described as presenting a palatial appearance and ‘quite luxurious’ with the theatre seating 630 customers, which increased with the addition of a balcony around 1913. The U-shaped balcony, carried on ten pairs of columns, was accessed by a central L-shaped staircase off the foyer.

The Picture Palace served as a picture-drome, music-hall and Variety Theatre. It was operated as part of the J F Emery Circuit by 1923, renamed ‘Palace Cinema’ in 1927, and equipped with a British Thomson-Houston (BTH) sound system by 1929. In 1957 the cinema closed, and the building became a carpet and furniture warehouse. The plan form remained unchanged until the mid-1970s, although the 1920s cinema seating was removed from the auditorium and stored in the upper floors.

Around 1975 former shops (8-10 Kemble St) were purchased by Tudor Bingo and incorporated into the cinema building. Number 8 was a purpose-built early-C20 shop, with an Edwardian shopfront to the ground and first floor, and Number 10 a former C19 house converted to a shop. Both shop frontages were boarded up and modifications included the creation of internal access between the newly purchased buildings and the former cinema, and the removal of the cinema entrance entablature for a fascia sign. A flat roof extension was added to the rear of numbers 8-10 and another at the south end of the auditorium’s east elevation. Internally the east arm of the balcony was extended to the south end of the auditorium, over the stage and beneath the proscenium arch.

Coral Bingo took over the bingo club in the late 1980s and established a social club, with the loss of the shop front to number 10 for the insertion of two ground floor windows.

In 1995 the buildings were purchased by Prescot Community Church (an Elim Pentecostal Congregation), who remained in residence until 2021. Knowsley Council acquired the building in 2021 and will repair and restore the buildings with funds secured as part of the Prescot High Street Heritage Action Zone (HSHAZ).

The revival of the cinema is the single largest project of Prescot’s HSHAZ and will see the historical building restored to its former glory. The HSHAZ is jointly funded by Knowsley Council and Historic England.

About the restoration work

Manchester-based Purcell are the lead consultants on the project and will undertake the design and specification for the external repair and restoration of the building as part of the first phase of works to the building. Purcell will work in partnership with conservation accredited structural engineers Blackett-Ord Conservation, and quantity surveyors Cavendish Bloor. The works are joint funded by Knowsley Council and Historic England.

This work follows initial feasibility work by Donald Insall Architects and desk-based archaeological assessments by Dr Robert Philpott of Specialist Archaeological Services, as part of the Prescot HSHAZ.

About Prescot High Street Heritage Action Zone.

Prescot was selected as one of the 68 high streets to benefit from the High Streets Heritage Action Zone scheme in 2020. The £3.1 million heritage-led regeneration programme will see major investment from Knowsley Council and Historic England into a number of key projects in Prescot town centre.

This includes the restoration and reuse of the Cockpit House on Church Street, master planning of the vacant Kemble Street/Sewell Street site, and the grant aiding of privately owned buildings centred on Market Place and Eccleston Street.

In addition to this, the local HSHAZ Cultural Programme has recently launched with the Pilot Project ‘Act One: Prescot Makers and Players’ and will continue to bring various groups in and around the town together to help celebrate the rich heritage of Prescot, together with the HSHAZ national commission ‘Picturing England’s High Streets’.