LIGHTS. CAMERA. DEMOLITION: SAVE seeks to halt historic cinema bulldozers
16th March 2023
With the owner of Stafford’s Sandonia Cinema seeking to bring the curtain down on the 1920s landmark, SAVE has joined the growing chorus of local residents and national heritage bodies objecting to the proposals
SAVE Britain’s Heritage has added its objection to proposals to flatten a spectacular piece of early cinema architecture in the West Midlands town of Stafford. The application submitted in February 2023 seeks total demolition of the unlisted landmark for the construction of 14 houses and is the second attempt by the site owner to clear the site under legal planning permission.
Swift legal intervention by SAVE in July 2021 helped stop the total loss of the Sandonia following reports the owner had commenced demolition without planning consent. Contractors had already torn through part of the former auditorium to the rear of the site, with the façade scaffolded ready for dismantling and the cornice already part smashed.
Built in 1919 by local Stafford architect Henry Thomas Sandy, the Sandonia is a showpiece of the pioneer years of cinema in Stafford but has been left to rot since the late 2000s when the former snooker club which leased the building closed.
The previous planning application to demolish the building in 2021, drew over 100 public letters of objection, with similar numbers already appearing against the latest plans. The plans have also drawn opposition from the Cinema Theatre Association, Twentieth Century Society and Theatres Trust, as well as local campaign group Save Our Sandonia.
The current demolition plans fail to provide any heritage assessment of the existing building, which is a requirement under national planning law for applications involving heritage assets like the Sandonia.
You can add your objection against the scheme by posting a comment on the Council’s planning portal for the application HERE or by searching Planning Reference 22/36444/OUT.
Ben Dewfield-Oakley, conservation officer for SAVE Britain’s Heritage, says: “This latest demolition application is a sad reflection of the owner’s lack of care and interest in preserving any link with the town's history and architecture. As SAVE so often argues, historic and eye-catching buildings like this make for fantastic conversions which help celebrate an area’s history and provide much-needed new housing.”
Peter Wylde, Architectural Caseworker for the Cinema Theatre Association, says: "The Cinema Theatre Association and SAVE have campaigned to preserve this cinema for some years, supporting the local 'SAVE our Sandonia' group. We do not object to housing on the rear of this big site, but the facade and foyer block must be kept. It would be easy to restore this block in place of house plots 12 to 14 in the latest plans. The block could be a shop, restaurant, or two apartments, while the classical facade would give joy to people in Stafford for decades to come."
Jack Pearce of the Save Our Sandonia campaign says: "Alongside SAVE and many other heritage bodies, we are fighting to save the Sandonia, not just for Stafford's past but chiefly for its future. The Sandonia is an incredible piece of architectural history that could be converted to provide for Stafford's residents, much like many other buildings in Stafford's old Shoe Quarter."
SAVE’s alternative vision
Despite its neglect, SAVE considers the Sandonia to be a landmark of high significance to the town and a key survivor from the interwar period, erected as a civic gift to returning soldiers from the First World War.
In October 2021, we published an alternative scheme for reusing part of the site, which would see the striking cinema frontage block, with its Roman Triumphal Arch, preserved while allowing much-needed new housing to be built on the adjacent empty site.
Designed by architect Sean Pemble our alternative scheme also proposed extending the grand 1920s frontage and filling the gap site next to it with a new sympathetically designed frontage to match. The designs include a new archway which would allow access from Sandon Road through to the site behind, which could be used for new housing, as desired by the site owner in the current plans.
The Sandonia ‘Kinema’ and Theatre opened in 1920 as ‘cine-variety’ theatre, with both live performances and films being shown. It was designed by local architect Henry T. Sandy of Sandy & Norris, with an attractive white faience facade, reminiscent of this early phase of cinema building before the streamlined art deco style became the dominant form of cinema design in the 1930s onwards.
A huge central recessed arch forms the main entrance, which is flanked by one small shop either side (now boarded up), with the name ‘Sandonia’ in the stonework over the entrance. A semi-circular glazed central window is embellished with decorative oculi, garlands and busts. Inside, a small foyer with two pairs of double doors lead to the stalls and stairs to the oval-shaped upper foyer which featured a glazed lantern.
The theatre is located some way to the north of Stafford town centre and initially it was not a great success. It was closed, sold and reopened several times until a sound system was installed in 1930 to allow it to screen 'talkies'.
Cinema use lasted until the 1960s at which point it was converted into a bingo hall, which ceased in 1990. In 1991 the stalls in the auditorium were converted for use as a snooker hall. The stalls rake was split into two terraces and the stage given a false floor over the original rake to provide level floors for the tables. A low false ceiling was installed over the stalls at balcony level and above the stage in the fly tower, but the safety curtain reportedly remained in situ. The projectors were removed and sold to a private collector.
Several applications to convert the building to an entertainment centre with bar in the late 1990s were refused on grounds of inadequate parking in the area, and the snooker hall subsequently closed in the early 2000s. The building has remained empty and disused since.
Note to editors
1. For more information contact Ben Dewfield-Oakley, conservation officer at SAVE Britain’s Heritage – firstname.lastname@example.org / 020 7253 3500
2. SEE HERE for our previous press release following SAVE's legal intervention in July 2021
3. SEE HERE for details on our alternative scheme for the site, published in October 2021
4. SAVE Britain’s Heritage is an independent voice in conservation that fights for threatened historic buildings and sustainable reuses. We stand apart from other organisations by bringing together architects, engineers, planners and investors to offer viable alternative proposals. Where necessary, and with expert advice, we take legal action to prevent major and needless losses.