Standing on Stanwell Road in Penarth, at its junction with Herbert Terrace, is the former Washington Cinema. The cinema was designed by the Welsh architect Harry Teather (1867-1956) for the Willmore Brothers. The brothers, from London, already owned a cinema in the town called the Windsor Kinema, which opened in 1914. The Washington cinema was named after a hotel that previously stood on the site and was marketed as a luxury cinema.
The design of the cinema is Modernist in style, with Art Deco style features and decoration. The cinema occupies a sloping corner site on Stanwell Road. The main block, incorporating the foyer, is a three storey block extending for three bays, with a smaller single bay wing to the left. The main block extends along Herbert Terrace for three bays, with the cinema's auditorium block extending for a further seven bays.
The main three bay block features a wider central bay and narrower outer bays. On the ground floor steps lead up to the cinema entrance. Either side of the entrance are small retail units while above is a projecting canopy. The first and second storeys have window bays with a decorative architrave, extending for both storeys, with a rectangular key stone. The windows are metal-framed Crittall-style windows, beneath which are panels with a decorative herringbone pattern. The second storey is surmounted by a pediment, with a ribbed moulding and a central acanthus leaf-style finial. The bays of the main block on Herbert Terrace mirror the style of the main facade.
The curved corner block of the cinema gives the building a very distinctive appearance. On the ground floor is another retail unit with a large curved window and door. Above, the first floor facade features horizontal rusticated bands pierced by narrow slit windows. Above, the second storey is deeply recessed, providing an enclosed terrace. The entablature above is supported by four classical columns, with railings in between.
The cinema had a large auditorium, with 1,000 seats in the stalls and 300 seats in the circle; 1,300 seats in total. It opened on 4 April 1938 and continued in operation until 1977 (the Windsor Kinema closed somewhat earlier, on 4 May 1958). Following its closure the cinema was re-purposed as an bingo club, operated by the EMI Bingo chain. This was only a short-lived enterprise and the building changed hands, becoming a night club.
In 1990 there were proposals to demolish the building but fortunately this was prevented. However, in 1994, while undergoing conversion to retail and office space the former cinema caught fire damaging the property. Work resumed in 1995, which saw the interior of the auditorium gutted. New openings were inserted into the Herbert Terrace elevation and the space converted into shop units. These units were occupied by a number of traders until 2008 when the units were combined into a single larger unit that is today occupied by a Tesco Express supermarket. Today, the main block of the former cinema serves as a tea room and contemporary art gallery.
Over time, with multiple conversions to new uses, the cinema has been altered from its original appearance. As illustrated, the cinema is shown in its hey-day in the 1950s with its canopy intact and original glazing. Today, the building has lost its canopy, the entrance steps have been changed, and many of its windows have been replaced. Only the outer bays on the main facade feature the original windows. A loft extension has been added and is most prominent on the building's Herbert Terrace elevation; the roof of the corner block has been converted to a terrace, enclosed by railings.
Only by looking at contemporary photographs of the cinema is it possible to properly identify the changes that have been made; these are largely sympathetic and in the spirit of the original design. The thicker glazing bars of the replacement windows provides a clue, as does the plainer treatment of the loft extension.
The former Washington Cinema is not listed.
Posted by Richard Coltman on Sunday, July 23, 2017