Friday, 22 January 2016

The Odeon Cinema, Pilgrim Street, Newcaste

On the Unfortunate Fate of Newcastle’s Old Odeon Cinema

Tom Draper
16 January 2016

In lamenting the loss of Newcastle’s historic art-deco Paramount Cinema (also known as the Old Odeon), it is difficult to escape a comparison with the work of T. Dan Smith – that name which still draws anger and exasperation from residents of the city – the engineer of destruction of much of Tyneside’s extraordinary architectural heritage. While one could say that T. Dan Smith, as forward-thinking progressive (at least until charges of embezzlement and accepting bribes emerge) arguably wanted the best for the city, in the form of his now notorious ‘Brasilia of the North’ developmental fantasy, it is clear that the Reuben Brothers’ decision to allow the Paramount to rot lacks all the high-minded rhetoric of that former leader of the city council.

Recalling the fate of Old Eldon Square, plans for the demolition of the Paramount and Commercial Union House – its unsightly neighbour and home to many of the artists and bohemians of the city – could revolve around the vision of the East Pilgrim St. Project, a proposal which would join Newcastle’s principal shopping areas – Northumberland St. and the redeveloped intu Eldon Square – more or less together. Harvey Nichols and Selfridges were once proposed as possible tenants for the future site, department stores which may one day overlook a rejuvenated, pedestrianised Pilgrim St.

Yet, all the evidence for such a scheme derive from articles written in the Chronicle in 2010, with few revisions in subsequent years. And as information from local news journalism and other sites dedicated to the crumbling building is limited to say the least, all that can surely be said is that the Reuben Brothers’ intentions for the space remain opaque and vague. What we do know, however, is that the Paramount will be demolished in a matter of years, if not months.

When I was doing preliminary research for this piece, I found that everyone had a different story about the building in its current form. Some suggested that the walls were lined with asbestos, and that this prohibited redevelopment, while others pointed towards the damp visible on the facade of the building – and the sheer mass of water surely sitting in the auditorium – and the hundreds of pigeons who have made the cinema their home. Proposals for its redevelopment were also numerous. Some argued that the cinema could have become an IMAX, a museum, a photographic gallery or a theatre. But in the end, most accepted that nothing could be done about the building now, and that its demolition was inevitable.

One of my bugbears: the state of Pilgrim Street. It's the main way into the city (okay, drivers crossing the Tyne Bridge ought to take a right and head up the motorway and enter the city that way, but you know what I mean) and it's a mess: cleaned up (but boarded up) buildings and others that have been allowed to fall into disrepair or are virtually empty, as well as that dreadful eyesore on stilts, Commercial Union House.

The east side of the street is considerably worse than the west and the closure of the fire station and Market Street Police Station have just muddied the situation further. The west side at least has the Northern Goldmiths, the Tyneside Cinema, Leaf, the two Italian bars, John Gerard and Alderman Fenwick's House. I'd like to add the Monkey Bar (soon to expand into the old Steel Wheels building, God forbid) to this mix but common sense says this isn't a good idea because it remains a pretty wretched dive, no matter how many times it's been 'polished.'

As for the Odeon itself... stripped of the assets that entitled it to be a listed building, it's now an empty shell and a dirty, large one at that. Talk of regenerating this area ought to be taken with a pinch of salt because there isn't the money to go around. Regenerating the Quayside (for the second time in 20 years) has led to closures, half-empty bars along Sandhill and businesses complaining that they're cut off from the rest of the city; a recent refurb of Haymarket Metro Station has left empty units; the once thriving Bigg Market is rundown and some bars no longer open (though that might not be a bad thing) - and if you walk through there in daylight, you'll see how much of a dump it actually is.

The penny doesn't seem to have dropped that by encouraging investment in one area - especially in times of economic hardship - successive city councils have only hastened the demise of another. While Grey Street and the Monument Mall area bloom, that other entrance to the city, Grainger Street, is awash with thrift shops and has come to rival its poorer cousin, Clayton Street. Maybe East Pilgrim Street should be demolished, grassed over and turned into a city park.

Could be worse, of course. At least Newcastle from the distance doesn't resemble a high-rise prison block like Gateshead.

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