Ruth Frost reports on Bradford Civic Society’s exclusive tour from inside one of the city’s most iconic buildings…
Most Bradfordians have a story to tell of when they last went to The Odeon or the New Victoria or The Gaumont as far back as 1930. The personal connections people have with it are, in part, what has saved the building from demolition, created campaign groups to ensure its best use, and what has held the public’s interest for 17 years. So what does the future of this Bradford landmark look like?
When Bradford Civic Society were invited in by the developer Bradford Live, there was no doubt it would be a popular event. Forty members old and new went in in two guided tour groups led by Lee Craven – the Director of Bradford Live. The two groups had the same reactions;
1. How overwhelmingly big the building is once you’re inside
2. How much potential each space – and there is a lot of space! – has for different uses
3. The fairly good state of repair. It isn’t as damaged or decaying as they thought it would be
We started in the Auditorium – later converted into a huge bingo hall complete with pink glittery walls. Unbelievably above the auditorium’s stage are two untouched flats, one maintenance flat, one manager’s accommodation. Although we couldn’t access these it gives an idea of the overall scale, that two whole flats can be hidden and forgotten about! It was nice to see some of the 1930’s balcony mouldings visible in places and to hear that these will be preserved but tastefully left incomplete and used as part of the more modern overall design.
We moved quite freely through the building sometimes a couple of us sneaking off to peer down corridors or into side rooms. I had expected a tour of what is essentially a building site to be strict and rigid but was pleased at how at ease they were with us poking around. At different points of interest Lee pointed his torch into gaps in the 1960s false ceilings to show us covered up original features, like huge well preserved ceiling roses or ornate light fixtures boxed in behind walls.
He also talked through his plans for each of the entertainment spaces and was open and candid in showing us drawings and plans. Bradford Live have yet to announce an operator, a vital piece in the puzzle of securing funds for restoration, however members keen to see the building back in use were able to ask directly about this and Lee reassured them that Bradford Live are in advanced negotiations there is progress.
One of the most interesting spaces to me was probably the most unremarkable when the building was in use – the old boiler room. Six large original oil powered furnaces stand in a row at the end of a long service corridor in the belly of the building. This is the closest point to where the building almost touches The Alhambra. Bradford Live hope to turn this space in to ‘The Boiler Room Bar’. Leaving the large furnaces in place and making a feature of them and by having an entrance at street level creating a link between the two entertainment venues.
The two former cinema screening rooms were vast, with all their seating and carpets ripped out they’re like dusty, echoey caves. You could imagine a good sized dry ski slope in either one of them! Theses rooms raised questions from the group “Do you find the task ahead daunting?” and “You must be overwhelmed by how much there is to do” Lee doesn’t seem fazed by the enormity of the project and joked, “Well, don’t we all get a bit overwhelmed at work sometimes?”.
One great aspect of the tour was to see the variety in members old and new who are interested in Bradford’s heritage and its progress. One girl who came was 2 years old when the Odeon closed so has no memories of it but said she wished she’d seen it when it was open. A man in his 80s saw Tom Jones perform there as a boy became a member just so he could come on this tour but by the end was asking about future events. Another new civic society member, in her 30s remembers coming to The Odeon in the summer holidays when films were £1 for school children so would come and see two or three films in a day. And some newer Bradfordians had never been before but are excited by the buildings future and invested in the city centre’s success said they’d had a great time and were so pleased they’d been allowed to look inside.
The final space Lee guided us to was saving the best til last. The former ballroom, latterly a third cinema screen. I had no idea this room existed and even though I’d seen photos of the inside of The Odeon before I had never seen this one. It has a beautiful and almost undamaged glass ceiling, high arched windows (currently bricked up) and glimpses of its glamorous past where flock wallpaper peeks through more recent paint jobs.
It was a wonderful opportunity to get inside a building many of us have stopped noticing day to day or try not to look at as it looms large and dormant over City Park. It renewed my passion to see it put back into its best use but I’m not naive – and now even more aware – that it is a mammoth task to bring such a giant back to or exceeding its former glory.
Which is why as a civic society we need to continue to urge Leeds City Region to make this building its number one priority for regional culture funding, and are encouraged that both Bradford Council and Bradford Live are fully supportive of this bid.
Bradford Civic Society would like to thank Bradford Live and Lee Craven for allowing us unprecedented access to this important building.