No. 25 Church Road – Historical, architectural and cultural significance

The following document was prepared by Andrew Parfitt in November 2011. Andrew is a local resident with an interest in social and economic geography, and a member of the Crystal Palace Triangle Planning Group.

It provides some context on the historical, architectural and cultural significance of the former Rialto cinema – No.25 Church Road, Upper Norwood, SE19 2TE.

Summary of why the building is important to the local community. Should it be locally listed?

1)      Historical: The Rialto opened in 1928, one of relatively few survivors of the silent era in Britain. Its site was previously part of the grounds of a large house, which had been built in the 1830s in the Great North Wood that once covered much of South London.

2)      Architectural:  The style is Neoclassical, with hints of Art Deco detailing, marking an interesting transition between the music hall and vernacular used for the earliest picture houses in the 1910s and the more flamboyant creations of the 1930s. Its architect, A C Matthews, created three other local cinemas, all now lost.

Granada bought the cinema and commissioned George Coles to modernise the premises, which reopened in 1950. Coles designed over 80 cinemas in Britain, which include some of the finest examples of Art Deco ebullience. At Upper Norwood, his style is more measured, giving rise to a dignified, noble sense of grandeur. Only six of Coles’ buildings remain in use as cinemas.

3)      Townscape: Church Road, Westow Street and Westow Hill comprise what is locally known as the Triangle, shared between Bromley, Croydon and Lambeth boroughs. The architecture is mainly mid-to-late-Victorian, with a pleasing diversity of periods and styles. 25 Church Road provides a dynamic contrast to the streetscape, through the clean geometry of its  facade and the exposed brick massing of its auditorium.

Bromley created the Crystal Palace Park Conservation Area in 1989, which includes the eastern side of Church Road. The western side of Church Road is in the Upper Norwood Triangle Conservation Area, which Croydon created in 1989.

4)      Cultural:  The Rialto opened when Upper Norwood was a genteel shopping centre, with the Crystal Palace still standing to its north. In the post-war years, the Triangle area suffered blight from road schemes and redevelopment plans. The cinema became a Granada bingo hall in 1968 and a Gala bingo hall in 1991.

Gradually, regeneration has occurred, largely through the initiatives of local businesses and community groups, supported by local councils. The Triangle is now a lively district centre of shops, restaurants, bars and cafés for a catchment area of about 60,000 people within a two-mile radius.

25 Church Road is the Triangle’s only large ‘D2’ leisure building. City Screen, an independent cinema operator, had for several years been interested in buying it, but when Gala came to sell the building in June 2009, Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC) narrowly outbid them. KICC was subsequently refused planning permission by Bromley to open a church and its intentions for the building remain unclear.

City Screen still want to open a cinema. But KICC wanted to undertake alterations which threatened to destroy the architectural and cultural legacy of this building and remove it from the use of local people as a leisure venue.

These alterations were refused by Bromley council in November 2011.

Early history

From the boundary tree of Vicar’s Oak, at the top of Gravel Hill[1], a track ran south through the Great North Wood, along the crest of Isabel Hill, to join the lane from Streatham to Woodside[2]. In mediaeval times, all the land was in Croydon manor, belonging to the archbishop of Canterbury.

To the east, Battersea manor owned Penge. In 1560, during the beating of the bounds, their men pressured the vicar of Croydon, Richard Finch, into the surrender of the land between Gravel Hill and what would become Fox Hill. So, the land to the east of Church Road, Penge Woods, would eventually form part of Bromley.

The Croydon Enclosure Act of 1797 required the upgrading of the track into a road. The opening of All Saints’ Church in 1829 gradually led to it taking the name of Church Road.

Following the Penge Enclosure of 1827, a large house called Cintra was built in Penge Woods in the 1830s. Its steeply-sloping grounds extended along the eastern side of Church Road between the Royal Crystal Palace Hotel, at the top of Anerley Hill, and Spring Grove House, another 1830s building, which the flats of Nightingale Court replaced in 1984.

During the second half of the 19th century, the owners of Cintra allowed some of the Church Road frontage to become flats and shops. In about 1905, the house was demolished. A developer laid out Patterson Road and Milestone Road across its grounds in 1907, and in the 1930s they became lined with suburban housing.


Some of the grounds of Cintra Park remained undeveloped into the 1920s. On an empty site to the south of the flats and shops in Church Road, A C Matthews, an Australian, designed and built the 1,393-seat Rialto at No.25. Eyles and Skone note that:

The entrance space immediately behind the outer doors occupied an unusual semi-circular area as the inner set of doors was placed in a curve. A particularly distinctive feature of the auditorium design (as far as British cinemas were concerned) was the saucer shape of the stalls floor with the front rows on a rise – this was considered to give a better view of the screen.”

On the first floor was a restaurant.

The Neoclassical facade, with hints of Art Deco, included wood and glass panelled doors and an elegant row of four windows above the canopy. Between its brick auditorium, built at right-angles to the south, and Church Road, a row of lock-up shops appeared.

Two film stars, Anna May Wong and John Stuart, were guests at the opening on 6th October 1928. The film was Edwin Carewe’s Ramona, starring Dolores Del Rio and Warner Baxter. The British Film Institute library describes it as a “Romance of a half-breed girl and a young Indian chief. From the novel by Helen Hunt Jackson”. The cinema installed sound in 1930.

Matthews decided to pre-empt competition by building a second cinema in 1930: the 1,250-seat Albany, on the adjacent site to the Rialto at Nos.37-41 Church Road. He also built two cinemas, both called the State, in Sydenham and Thornton Heath in 1931 and 1932. None of these other buildings survives.

By 1935, Excelsior Super Cinemas had taken over Matthews’ circuit. They later became part of Medway Cinemas, which Granada bought in March 1949.

Rialto, 1948

The Rialto as it was in the 1940s

(collection of Allen Eyles and Keith Skone)


Granada commissioned George Coles (1884-1963), an eminent cinema architect, to modernise the premises. On 11th September 1950, the cinema reopened as the Granada Upper Norwood. The Albany became the Century, but closed in 1958.

Coles was responsible for creating or renovating 82 cinemas in Britain. Only six of these buildings remain in use as cinemas (the dates are of Coles’ work):

  • Rio (1915), Kingsland High Street, Hackney; built as the Kingsland Empire; modified by Frederick E Bromige in 1936[3].
  • Empire (1936), High Street, Bromley; built as the Odeon.
  • Stag (1936), London Road, Sevenoaks; still in use as a community arts centre, cinema and theatre[4].
  • Empire Screen 2 (1937), Leicester Square, London; built as the Ritz; incorporated into the Empire.
  • Odeon (1937), Fortis Green Road, Muswell Hill.
  • Empire (1962), Leicester Square, London; built as a theatre; converted by Coles.

Other cinemas by Coles included:

  • Classic (1928), Lea Bridge Road, Leyton; now a bingo hall.
  • Himalayan Palace (1929), South Road, Southall; cinema closed in 2010.
  • Metropole (1929), Victoria Street, London; became a music venue; foyer now a restaurant; due for demolition to allow the enlargement of a tube station.
  • ABC (1930), Essex Road, Islington; built as the Carlton; became a bingo hall; bought by  Resurrection Manifestation, who are converting it into a church.
  • Odeon (1934), Upper Wickham Lane, Welling; became a bingo hall; now owned by Freedom Centre International, a church.
  • Troxy (1933), Commercial Road, Stepney; now a music and performance venue[5].
  • Rex (1934), Stratford High Street, London; built as a theatre; converted by Coles; became a music venue until 2010, when Newham repossessed for unpaid rent and rates.
  • Odeon (1936), Lloyds Avenue, Ipswich; now a bingo hall.
  • Odeon (1936), High Street, Southall; now a supermarket and furniture retailer.
  • Coronet (1937), John Wilson Street, Woolwich; became a music venue; now owned by the New Wine Church.
  • Gaumont State (1937), Kilburn High Road, Kilburn; became a bingo hall; now owned by the Ruach Ministries Church.
  • Kenning Hall (1938), Lower Clapton Road, Hackney; modified as the Odeon; became a night club; now disused; group campaigning for a community cinema[6].
  • Odeon (1938), Broad Street, Halifax; now a bingo hall.
  • Essoldo (1939), Lane Top, Barnsley Road, Sheffield; built as the Capitol; now a furniture retailer.

Of the remaining buildings, 35 have been demolished.

In February 1961, the cinema became the Granada Crystal Palace. It briefly flirted with part-time bingo sessions in 1967, before returning to exclusive use as a cinema. But this closed on 26th May 1968, the last main feature being John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando. The British Film Institute library describes it as “A story of love and betrayal about a latent homosexual US Army officer and his unfaithful wife”.

Granada Upper Norwood, 1955

The war is over and the Rialto's had a facelift and a change of name.

(collection of Allen Eyles and Keith Skone)

Photo Church Road, c. 1955

(Francis Frith collection)

Bingo Hall

In June 1968, Granada reopened the cinema as a bingo-hall. By the 1980s, the row of lock-up shops had disappeared, exposing the brickwork of the auditorium.

Granada Bingo, Church Road, 1986

Oh dear.  Some time in the 80s and it's looking a little shabby.  The Princess parked outside doesn't help.

(collection of Crystal Palace Triangle Planning Group)

Gala bought the bingo hall in May 1991. Apart from the loss of one first-floor window, the facade survived intact, including the wood and glass panelled doors and canopy. Eyles and Skone noted that:“It remains a Gala bingo hall in 2006, remarkably little altered from its cinema days.”

Gala Bingo, Church Road, June 2009

Photo to be inserted

Kingsway International Christian Centre

In June 2009, Gala sold the building to Kingsway International Christian Centre (KICC)[7], which outbid City Screen, an independent cinema operator[8]. KICC wished to open a place of worship in the building, but failed to secure the requisite planning permission. The building has remained empty ever since.

KICC has carried out interior works and has erected scaffolding on the interior. It has not revealed details of its intended use of the building.

Former Gala Bingo Hall, Church Road, 2010

27th June, 2009.

(collection of Crystal Palace Triangle Planning Group)

Picture Palace Campaign

In June 2009, local residents and traders formed the Picture Palace Campaign with the aim of bringing a cinema to Crystal Palace, ideally to No.25 Church Road, the only large purpose-built entertainment venue in the local district centre. The campaign has achieved widespread support. City Screen remains keen to open a cinema in Crystal Palace, if a suitable site becomes available.

Picture Palace, Church Road, 2012?

(collection of Crystal Palace Triangle Planning Group)[9]


Coulter, John (1996), Norwood Past, Historical Publications, London.

Coulter, John (2002), Norwood, Sutton Publishing, London.

Eyles, Allen; Skone, Keith (2006), Croydon Cinemas, Tempus, Stroud.

Green, Jerry (2007), The Silver Screens of Crystal Palace, The Palace Magazine.

Warwick, Alan (1982), The Phoenix Suburb: A South London Social History, Blue Boar Press, London.

British Film Institute Library (website)

Cinema Treasures (website)

[1] Anerley Hill

[2] Beulah Hill and Beggars Hill (South Norwood Hill)

[9] Image created by what if: sydenham (2011)