Around the beginning of the 20th century, the rapidly increasing popularity of ‘moving pictures’ led to a notable boom in the number of cinemas being created in and around Bristol. Many companies used existing buildings for their venues, such as the Coliseum on Park Row (which had previously been a rollerskating rink), while others created new purpose-built cinemas.
Soon, nearly every suburb of the city boasted a cinema, however the residents of Clifton resisted attempts to open one in BS8, believing the new art form to be rather ‘low brow’ and a passing phase. Proposals to convert the Victoria Rooms and the Grand Spa met with strong opposition and so both locations were soon converted back to their original purposes.
In 1920, architects James Henry LaTrobe and Thomas Henry Weston decided to address the lack of a venue for moving pictures to be shown in this important corner of Bristol by creating a cinema “somewhat worthy of the status and traditions of Clifton” (Bristol Times and Mirror 30/11/1921).
The position they chose to use, on the corner of Whiteladies Road and Melrose Place, originally bore a nunnery – whose white-clad occupants it is suggested may even have been the inspiration for the road’s name. When LaTrobe and Weston acquired the plot, it contained a mid 19th-century terraced house with an extensive garden that had most recently been home to the Young People’s Evangelistic League.
The first and second floors of the house were incorporated into the design of the new building while the rest of the site was completely transformed. The gentlemen designed a venue comprising a 1,298-seat auditorium (the largest in the South West at the time), a large foyer, the ‘Rendezvous’ café, a ballroom, a billiards room and a roof terrace – perhaps an early multi-use leisure complex rather than a traditional cinema.
Building work started early in 1921 and was completed by November of that year. It is interesting to note that 50% of LaTrobe and Weston’s workforce were unemployed ex-servicemen, struggling to find work after the Great War.
The Picture House was opened on 29 November 1921 by the Duchess of Beaufort. During the opening ceremony much emphasis was placed on the message that the Picture House was to promote instruction as well as happiness and amusement; it was “the management’s [intention] to develop the educational side of pictures as much as possible”. They also wished to “encourage British art… whenever they could book a film produced by British artists which they thought worthy of the house, the directors would do it”.
After the ceremony, “Pollyanna – a charming romance in which Miss Mary Pickford has put in some of her most delightful work” was screened as the principal film.
James LaTrobe died a month later on 30 December; the Whiteladies Picture House was the only cinema he designed.
The ‘talkies’ first arrived in Bristol in 1929 but Picture House held out by continuing to play silent films for some time after, billing itself as ‘the home of the Silents’. Eventually, however, they converted to the new technology and took advantage of ‘The Golden Years’ which followed in the 1930s as cinema all over the country boomed.
The Picture House survived the physical and financial ravages of World War II but, by 1945, audience numbers at cinemas all across the country had started to decline. During the 1950s, in an attempt to counteract this trend, the original screen (whose outline can still be seen on the back wall of the auditorium) and proscenium arch were removed in order to accommodate a much larger cinemascope screen.
In 1957, the original balcony was extended to increase the seating capacity from 1,298 to around 1,500. This resulted in the creation of a mezzanine floor between the foyer and balcony as well as the replacement of original large stained glass windows with the smaller circular windows that we see today.
By 1978, competition with new multiplex venues was too strong and more drastic action was taken for the Picture House to stay in the game. The balcony was converted into a second ‘mini’ cinema while the ground floor was divided into two separate screen rooms. It was during this time that much of the original features became hidden from view. The crazy-paving floor of the foyer was buried under carpet, the ballroom was divided up into offices and the beautiful plasterwork in the main auditorium was neglected.
The Picture House underwent changes to name and ownership many times during the 1980s and 90s; ABC, Cannon, MGM and back to ABC, eventually absorbed as part of the Odeon chain. In the late 1990s the owners considered closing the cinema altogether, but a strong local campaign against this surprised the owners and resulted in the decision being reversed. On 25 February 1999, the long-term future of the Picture House was further protected with a Grade II listing.
In 2001 the Picture House came under threat from closure once again and, despite another strong campaign, the cinema closed in November 2001, almost 80 years to the day since it opened.
The site was sold to the property company Melenbrand. Despite having planning permission to convert the building into a dry gym, retail units, restaurant or a church, no company has so far been willing to take on the project. This is partly due to the difficulties of converting the building sufficiently for these purposes due to its listed status but also to the level of public support still in existence for the venue to be reopened, either as a cinema once more or for other community good.
More than 10 years have now passed since the closure of the Picture House and the fabric of the building has been deteriorating in that time. The far end of the main auditorium (which hasn’t been used since the 1970s) is the worst affected; heavy snow in 2010/11 caused damage to the rendering on the side elevation which has resulted in it being hidden from view behind scaffolding ever since.
The future of the Picture House now hangs in the balance. We are working to save this treasured Bristol landmark before it slips any further into ruin and disrepair.