Historic Sheffield cinema building's chance of £3 million restoration bid

Felicity Hoy and Kiran Antcliffe in the Abbeydale Picture House. Picture by Chris Etchells
Felicity Hoy and Kiran Antcliffe in the Abbeydale Picture House. Picture by Chris Etchells

"This whole part of the city has become more of a cool place to be," says Kiran Antcliffe at the Abbeydale Picture House, which sits in the midst of what is fast becoming one of Sheffield's most fashionable districts, populated by independent cafes, antiques shops and vintage emporiums.

"It's become a destination for people to do things at night and in the day. It seems daft that this massive building's in the middle of that, not being used."

Kiran is the studios and space manager at CADS, the city charity that took over the old cinema on a 25-year lease in January.

Highlights of the organisation's first year at the building have included the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival in May, a weekend-long beer festival and the opening of a co-working space called Studio One.

And there's more to come. Studio One has 10 clients and is expanding upstairs with a meeting room, afrobeat collective Nubiyan Twist and stand-up comedian Simon Day have gigs lined up at the venue and the place is licensed for weddings, too, offering a characterful alternative to a conventional church ceremony.

The ambition is to pull in more visitors to boost the Picture House's viability and profile ahead of a £3 million bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund, which would make an extensive restoration possible.

"Having the doors open every day for something is quite important," says Kiran. "As time goes on I think there will be more everyday users."

The Grade II listed picture house, on Abbeydale Road, opened in 1920 in the era of silent films, and closed in 1975. A Friends group was later formed to revive the venue, but the society went into administration and plans to open a climbing centre stalled.

In 2015 movies started to be shown there again, seats were reinstated and a string of one-off occasions were held by arts promoters Hand Of, before the reins were handed to CADS, which runs a growing network of studios and events spaces.

Kiran said he felt a strong attraction to the building, and admits to having scoped out the premises previously before the Picture House Social bar launched in the old Bar Abbey snooker club downstairs.

"The room was really cheap and I thought it would make a really good bar - we didn't do it, and now there is a really good bar down there! So when we got to see the rest I thought we can't let that happen again - if we don't take it, somebody else will and we'll forever regret it.

"It's obviously a really big undertaking. For a lot of people, what put them off is they thought they'd have to move in, spend probably over £1 million, and then start doing stuff. We're used to being able to work with what's already there."

There are parts of the building untouched since the projectors last rolled on a daily basis over 40 years ago. Panels depicting cherubs line the walls, mosaic flooring remains and the magnificent dome on the roof still possesses its colourful stained glass. It's also believed that a wooden curtain on the stage, installed in the 1960s when Star Cinemas took over and converted the cinema to widescreen, hides the largest proscenium arch outside the West End.

The venue remains a bit chilly, though - the heating needs reconnecting properly - and insurance posed a challenge, with only one firm prepared to provide cover.

"It's an expensive building to be in," says Kiran.

"For funding it's good, for private investment it's bad. It's got what's called a 'conservation deficit'. Put a really simple way, if you came in and spent £2 million, then this building might only be worth half a million more. For a private investor, it's never going to be worth it. That's where the funders are going to come in and cover that gap."

Heritage Lottery representatives have visited already, and suggested CADS ask for £3 million. "They've been here, and they love it, and they'd like to fund it. It's a long process."

One of the conditions of heritage funding is that sites attract new visitors, so a broad portfolio of activities should help. Weddings are being looked after by Felicity Hoy, of Inner City Events. For £3,500 couples have the run of the building for a day and night - main ceremonies happen in the auditorium and receptions take place behind the screen beside the flytower, a huge space well-suited to atmospheric lighting.

Seven weddings are booked in next year, says Felicity. "If you think about this as a wedding venue, the prices people are charging in other cities are just incredible."

The age range is usually 30-40, she adds, explaining: "They just want something different. A normal type of wedding doesn't appeal to them. The thing people say they hate the most is chair covers."

A café remains a tempting, money-spinning idea, but Kiran says the need to book events makes the concept tricky to realise.

"It's quite hard saying to somebody they can run a café from Monday to Friday but then say 'We've got a wedding, you've got to leave'. We've constantly run into a stumbling block with that."

The venue still lacks a full venue licence - CADS relies on temporary event notices at present - but this is being addressed.

"We think when we get a full licence on the space, and when it is being used by quite a lot of people every day, then it might make a café proposition a bit more attractive to somebody.

"One way to do it would be to build a big, soundproof glass screen between the cafe and the auditorium. But it would be a bit of shame!"

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