Express & Star

Heritage group campaigning to save historic Walsall cinema

Eerie photos show a historic and much-loved former Walsall cinema, theatre and pub which has been left standing empty for years.

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Interior view towards the stage of The Imperial in Walsall. Photo: Avalon Heritage

But heritage groups are now campaigning to save The Imperial, on Darwall Street, from being converted into 21 apartments.

The Cinema Theatre Association, Theatres Trust and regional branch of the Victorian Society have objected to the proposal by Lodge Housing Ltd and urged Walsall Council planners to reject the proposal.

The Imperial was last used as a Wetherspoon pub before it closed in 2016 and it has sat empty ever since.

It was built in 1868 as an agricultural hall before it was redeveloped to become St George’s Hall a few years later.

It became The Imperial Theatre in 1899 before it was converted again as the Imperial Picture House – Walsall’s first cinema – in 1908.

When the cinema closed 60 years later, it was turned into a bingo hall and remained so until 1997 when JD Wetherspoon took it over and reopened it as a pub.

In its application, Lodge Housing Ltd said it would make very little changes to the exterior of the building and would be bring a vacant site back into use as well as providing much needed affordable housing.

The Imperial, in Darwall Street, Walsall, which closed in 2016. Photo: J Mason Associates
View of the original balcony of The Imperial in Walsall. Photo: Avalon Heritage

But Peter Wylde, of the Cinema Theatre Association, said: “The CTA strongly objects to this application.

“The proposal would destroy a fine interior space which has been used continually for assembly and entertainment for the people of Walsall since 1869.

“Loss of such a major public space has to be justified by a proper assessment of the needs of the town.

“The proposal would also destroy the major part of a very fine and almost intact cinema dating from the early years of cinema entertainment before World War One.

“Cinemas from this period are a precious survival, and many are now statutorily listed.

“The proposed flats are very small and represent inappropriate over- development in a building of great historic significance.

“Historic fabric would be lost, and the multiple windows in the south-west wall would have a negative impact on the appearance of Lichfield Street Conservation Area.

“We urge Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council to refuse the current application and think creatively about the benefits this fine building could bring to the town.”

Tim Bridges, of the Victorian Society, added: “Whilst the proposed conversion to apartments would retain most of the exterior, with the frontage relatively unaltered, the introduction of numerous doorways, windows and balconies would change the character of the present building significantly.

“Internally the introduction of the 21 apartments will see the extensive subdivision of the auditorium space.

“We consider these interventions to be inappropriate to this building, resulting in the loss of historic fabric and the sense of the auditorium, both internally and externally.

“In our view these proposals will have a negative impact on the character and appearance of this building in the conservation area.”

And Tom Clarke, of the Theatres Trust called for the building to be brought back into use as a community facility as there was no evidence of a lack of need presented.

He added, if the application was granted, a photographic record report needs to be carried out to ensure the “history and significance” of The Imperial could be appreciated by future generations.

He said: “Whilst we keen to see this vacant building brought back into use and welcome that the proposed scheme retains at least the front façade, we are unable to support the application at present due to a lack of justification it is surplus to requirements.”