Statement of Special Interest
14 Bath Street, Portobello meets the criteria of special architectural or historic interest for the following reasons:
- It is a rare survival of an Art Deco/Moderne style cinema which retains its architecturally distinctive character to the main elevation.
- For the survival and quality of its interior design which includes a substantial amount of 1930s decorative scheme, which is a rare survival in Scotland.
- It is a notable example of the work of architect Thomas Bowhill Gibson, a foremost Scottish cinema designer of the earlier 20th century.
- The cinema is a prominent feature in the streetscape and its setting in Portobello
- It is of social historical significance for the association of the area with seaside leisure in the 20th century.
The first edition Ordnance Survey map (surveyed 1853, published 1854) shows a 19th century villa on this site before a building called the Electric Theatre was believed to have been built around 1912 (Baird, Edinburgh Theatres).
The current building is first shown on the mid-20th century Ordnance Survey map (surveyed 1947, published 1950) where it is labelled as a cinema. It was designed as "The County" cinema by Thomas Bowhill Gibson and it opened on March 30th, 1939, showing Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (Baird). An article about the opening of the new cinema in The Scotsman, 25 March 1939 reports that it was built at a cost of £20000 with a capacity of 1600.
The Musselburgh News described the County as a 'super cinema', a palace of entertainment that employed the latest in comfort, safety as well as modern science and invention. So called, 'super cinemas' emerged in Scotland in the late 1920s and were designed to maximise audience numbers and create a pleasant viewing experience, taking inspiration from American 'movie palaces' of the 1920s. (Spotlight on Scotland's Cinemas). Innovative features reported of the new cinema included installation of the latest sound system of Western Electric and the claim of being the first cinema in Great Britain to adopt the 'illuminated screen'. The illuminated screen was a pale illuminated screen border, as opposed to a wide black border, which improved the viewing experience particularly for new colour pictures. (Musselburgh News 24 March 1939).
The cinema underwent refurbishment and reopened in November 1954 when it was renamed the George Cinema after its new owner George Palmer and showed foreign films as part of the Edinburgh Festival that year. On reopening it was the first cinema in the east of Scotland to show widescreen films and offer four track stereophonic sound using 32 speakers throughout the cinema. (Baird, p.247.)
The building ceased to trade as a cinema in 1974 and it underwent alterations around that time to convert it to a commercial bingo hall. These works are understood to have included removal of the 'shockcrete' panels from the front façade walls and replacement with a timber frame and sheet cladding to replicate the former detailing. The central glass brick tower was also removed after this time.
The bingo hall closed in 2016 and the building has not been in use since this date (as at 2023).
The Art Deco style emerged in the mid-1920s and was popular for buildings associated with new functions such as modern transport, and sports and leisure buildings including cinemas. By the late 1930s the Art Deco style evolved into a streamlined, 'Moderne' style which included bolder architectural massing and geometrical forms with less ornament, a style which was more closely aligned with emerging Modernist designs in France, the Netherlands and Germany.
The design of the former County cinema is a notable example of this style of architecture with its bold geometric towers and smooth façade treatment. Plans of the building by Thomas Bowhill Gibson in the National Record of the Historic Environment dated 1938 show the building was to be faced with 'Shockcrete' stone facing slabs, an innovative type of pre-cast concrete invented in the Netherlands in 1931 and used widely on the Continent but rarely in Great Britain. While the Shockcrete panels at the former County cinema were removed in the later 20th century, the rare use of this material reflects the innovation and ambition of Tomas Bowhill Gibson in designing the former County Cinema.
Plans of the building from 1938 show that the Bath Street Cinema was designed with a tall illuminated central tower. The original facing was in two shades of blue and the tower was internally lit by changed coloured lights, neon and floodlighting (McKean). This design was inspired by Continental cinema design, in particular Germany and was known as 'night architecture', utilising the possibilities of electric lighting to ensure buildings stood out at night as well as in daylight.
Although the glass tower was removed when the building was renovated in the 1970s, the principal elevation retains its distinctive Art Deco/Moderne form and continues to represent the cinema use and the era in which it was built. Features of the principal elevation which remain and which are characteristic of the Art Deco style of the late 1930s include its geometric form, streamlined minimalist design, tall projecting towers, rendered walls with horizontally emphasised cills and quoins.
We did not see the interior in 2023 but have referred to recent photographs. We understand that the main interior space of the former cinema has been subdivided by a suspended ceiling however the original auditorium space above retains a substantial amount of the original interior decorative scheme dating from the 1930s, including chevron details and strip plasterwork around the stage and details to the ceiling shown on the 1938 plans by Bowhill Gibson. The original balcony and projection room are also intact which adds to the special interest of the design with the overall original design scheme still readable. The survival of the original decorative scheme to the auditorium, above the suspended ceiling, is significant and increasingly rare. The layout of the foyer still survives as does some of the early decorative features.
The architect Thomas Bowhill Gibson (1895–1949) attended Edinburgh College of Art and began his own practice in 1922. By 1939 he was admitted to ARIBA and had entered into partnership with James William Laing as T Bowhill Gibson and Laing. Gibson is recognised for his interest in modern architecture and variations in the Art Deco style as shown by his cinema and theatre design in Edinburgh. He is known as Edinburgh's leading cinema designer and notable works include the category B listed 1937 Dominion Cinema in Morningside (LB27650) and the category C listed 1949 former Lothian Buses in Longstone (LB52441). Gibson also carried out some domestic commissions such as the large 1935 Learmonth House and Court apartment complex which covers a full street block in the west end of Edinburgh.
Most large urban cinemas of the period were designed with elaborate front entrance elevations prominent in the streetscapes in order to advertise the cinema. The Bath Street cinema's elevation was a striking intervention in its largely residential street by its obviously contrasting modern style and large scale. Although the tower has since been removed the overall form, massing and profile of the principal elevation survives and continues to make a distinctive contribution to the setting of Bath Street and immediate area which is a principal thoroughfare leading to the Promenade.
Cinemas of the period were typically located in town or city centre high streets or commercial areas. The setting of the Bath Street cinema is unusual because it sits within a predominantly residential area which makes its height and façade even more prominent.
The building's location within this part of Portobello is connected to area's historical association with seaside leisure and is functionally related to the nearby baths (listed category A – LB27261), and open-air pool and other cinemas which are now demolished.
Age and rarity
The first cinema showing in Scotland was understood to have been around 1896, and in the following years existing buildings, such as village halls, were often repurposed as 'cinemas' to show films. The Cinematographic Act of 1909 was brought in to regularise construction because of the high risk of fire in the projection rooms. Early purpose-built cinemas were often small scale such as the Cameo Cinema (listed at category B, LB47783) possibly the oldest cinema in Edinburgh built in 1914.
Following a pause during First World War film production and cinema construction developed rapidly in line with the increase in cinema interest. American film studios led the way in film production in the earlier 1920s, following the development of cinema sound and the 'talkies'. From the mid-1920s the studios built their own large 'super cinemas'. They were usually purpose built and had highly stylised entrances fronting a plain brick hall or auditorium. The earlier examples were classically detailed using marble and gilt, before the development of the 'Atmospheric' style in the late 1920s.
From the late 1920s large scale super cinemas were built in Scotland emulating the picture palaces in North America. They were built by film distributers such as Odeon, Gaumont or ABC who usually employed specialist architects to design their cinemas, with the projects often carried to completion by local architects. This was the case at the New Victoria Cinema (listed at category A, LB30028) on Clerk Street in Edinburgh, designed by William Trent but overseen by the Edinburgh architect James Jerdan. Smaller distributers such as Capitol and independent cinemas were typically designed by local architects who followed the trends of super cinemas elsewhere in the country. This was the case in Bath Street although Bowhill Gibson was a more established cinema architect than many who carried out independent cinema designs.
Cinemas were a common building type across Scotland and all cities and most small towns usually had at least one. The George Cinema on Bath Street is not rare within its building type, but it is exceptional for the survival of its striking Art Deco/Moderne design, both internally and externally.
It's streamlined design included innovations in the use of modern materials and up to the minute Continental style. The design of this building is highly representative of the characteristic cinema building type which was epitomised by new modern architecture emerging specifically in the 1920s and 1930s. There are increasingly few purpose-built cinemas of this date and design quality and style which survive. The survival of its interior decorative scheme is also increasingly rare.
Social historical interest
Social historical interest is the way a building contributes to our understanding of how people lived in the past, and how our social and economic history is shown in a building and/or in its setting.
From the first public screening of moving pictures in 1896, cinema quickly established itself as the most popular entertainment activity in Scotland which continued into the first half of the 20th century. The cinema at Bath Street adds to our understanding of the impact of the interwar cinema boom on leisure in a suburban part of Edinburgh. Its subsequent conversion to a bingo hall and continued use until 2016 adds to the social historic interest of the area.
There is special interest of the cinema's location in Portobello and the social historic interest of this area of Edinburgh as a destination for leisure and recreation in the early to mid-20th century.
Association with people or events of national importance
There is no association with a person or event of national importance.
Supplementary information in the listed building record revised in 2023.
Canmore: http://canmore.org.uk/ CANMORE ID 149617
Ordnance Survey (surveyed 1853, published 1854). Edinburghshire Sheet 3, 6 inches to the mile. 1st Edition. Southampton: Ordnance Survey.
Ordnance Survey (surveyed 1893, published 1894). Edinburghshire IV.5, 25 inches to the mile. 2nd Edition. Southampton: Ordnance Survey.
Bartholemew, J G (1939-1940) Post office plan of Edinburgh, Leith and Portobello. Edinburgh: Bartholemew
Ordnance Survey (surveyed 1947, published 1950). National Grid Maps NT3073 A. Southampton: Ordnance Survey.
National Record of The Historic Environment, RIAS/Thomas Bowhill Gibson Collection, DP 228692
Gifford. J, McWilliam. C, Walker. D, (1984) Buildings of Scotland, Edinburgh. p.652. Yale University Press, London
Gray. R. (2011) Cinemas in Britain, A History of Cinema Architecture. Surrey: Lund Humphries. p.127.
Historic Scotland (2009) Spotlight on Scotland's Cinemas. Edinburgh: Historic Scotland.
McKean. C, (1992) Edinburgh: An Illustrated Architectural Guide. Pillons and Wilson Edinburgh. p.212.
Musselburgh News, Opening Next Week – New Cinema for Portobello, 24 March 1939, p 6.
Peter.B. (2011) Scottish Cinemas. Isle of Man: Lily Publications Ltd. p.96.
The Scotsman, New Portobello Cinema, 25 March 1939, p. 13.
Baird. G, Edinburgh Theatres, Cinemas and Circuses 1820-1963 p.247. http://www.scottishcinemas.org.uk/etcc/ [accessed 15/08/2023].
Britain from Above. SAR018921 SCOTLAND (1953). Portobello Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland. An oblique aerial photograph taken facing South at https://www.britainfromabove.org.uk/image/SAR018921
Capital Collections, The image library for the collections of Edinburgh Libraries and Museums and Galleries, George (formerly County) Cinema, Portobello
Wheelan, Kevin Smith & Wheelan, Henry 1971 https://www.capitalcollections.org.uk/view-item?i=4485&WINID=1692709516238 [accessed 22/08/2023].
Dictionary of Scottish Architects. Thomas Bowhill Gibson at
https://www.scottisharchitects.org.uk/architect_full.php?id=200969 [accessed 27/04/2023].
Friends of The George, Vision Document, April 2023, pp 14-15 at https://thegeorge.org.uk/ [accessed 18.09.2023].
Glasgow University in association with Edinburgh University. Early Cinema in Scotland, 1896-1927 Research Project at https://earlycinema.gla.ac.uk/ [accessed 27/04/2023].
Post War Building Materials, entry on 'precast concrete façade panels' http://postwarbuildingmaterials.be/material/precast-concrete-facade-panels/ [accessed 18.09.2023].
Scottish Cinemas and Theatres Project. Scottish Cinemas Database – entry for County/George 14 Bath Street including a gallery of interior images from 2008 at http://www.scottishcinemas.org.uk/scotland/portobello/george.html [accessed 27/04/2023].
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Printed: 05/12/2023 06:16