Empty and decaying, the former theatre is up for auction. An ambitious campaign group want to save it
With its ‘spectacular auditorium featuring a riot of gilded rococo plasterwork,’ it’s clear the Hulme Hippodrome - then called Grand Junction Theatre - was quite something when it opened at the turn of the twentieth century alongside its neighbour the Playhouse (confusingly this was first known as the Hippodrome, reflecting just how interwoven the two venues’ histories really are). Both were part of the theatrical empire of W. H. Broadhead and the buildings were even connected by an arcade, at the centre of which was Broadhead's company HQ.
Subsequent decades have brought turbulent times for both venues, including many years spent empty and decaying. Yet while the Playhouse has found a new, if somewhat precarious, lease of life with NIAMOS - a collective who started transforming it into a community arts hub back in 2017, even producing its first pantomime in 25 years two years later - the Hippodrome has met a less fortunate fate.
Last used as a theatre in the 1960s, it became a bingo hall from the mid-1970's until its closure in 1986. The Floral Hall adjacent to the main theatre was then used as a snooker hall before the venue was snapped up by its current owner, evangelist group Gilbert Deya Ministries. Church services took place in the foyer, which left the auditorium vacant and deteriorating, following which the council served the charity with a Dangerous Buildings Notice and closed the Hippodrome down; this was in 2017, the same year Gilbert Deya Ministries’ founder was extradited to Kenya to face child trafficking charges.
Perhaps inevitably, things have since gone from bad to worse. The ‘Hippo,’ as it’s affectionately known, was occupied by squatters (fortunately since moved on) and is now considered by bodies like the Theatres Trust and the Victorian Society to be amongst the most at-risk venues of its kind in the UK.
Now it has come to the attention of campaign group Friends of the Hulme Hippodrome that the building has been put up for auction, spelling yet more potential danger for its future.
Gilbert Deya Ministries have tried to sell the Hippo before, yet been somewhat thwarted by its Grade II listed status, which limits what a developer could do with the site. Paul Baker from the Friends believes its asking price of £950K+ worryingly implies it has potential to be redeveloped as residential.
“John Kelsey, Manchester City Council's planning officer, has written to the auctioneer to confirm this isn’t the case,” he says, “but they don’t seem to be listening. At that price, someone could get burnt.”
Nevertheless, there are fears as to what permissions could be granted in the future. Baker and his group desperately want to ensure that ‘the opportunity offered by the sale will benefit the community and is not lost to another private development.’ Their ideal scenario? Buying both the Hippodrome and Playhouse off their current owners, or at least leasing them for 25 years.
“Ideally we would be able to redevelop both venues,” Baker says, pointing out that it’s been difficult for NIAMOS to invest sustainably in the Playhouse when its Siamese twin is so imperilled. And even the Playhouse isn't fully safe; while its current owners C&R Properties are so far working cooperatively with NIAMOS, one never knows what a developer may be otherwise planning…
The chances of the Friends buying two venues with different landlords, one of which is hell-bent on trying to sell at an exorbitant price, isn’t lost on Baker and his colleagues. And that’s without the sheer scale of the restoration work needed, likely to cost millions.
They won’t be daunted, however, determined in their quest to preserve these architectural treasures and the fascinating cultural memories they hold.
It’s clear from the work of NIAMOS - who, alongside the Theatres Trust, prompted the new campaign group - that impressive feats can be achieved with enough persistence and creativity (ironically, NIAMOS stands for a ‘not in a month of Sundays,’ a tongue-in-cheek reference to the work involved in transforming the Playhouse). Their shared ambition? To further NIAMOS’ work in creating a community arts hub, providing a host of cultural activities in the Playhouse, while inspiring social enterprise across both venues through workshops, offices and even shops.
Perhaps most ambitiously, however, they dream of opening of a Museum of Manchester Musical Art (MOMMA) in the restored Hippodrome, writing: ‘There has been a pent-up demand for some years now for a permanent venue that celebrates and chronicles the world-famous Manchester music scene. Hulme has played a major role in this scene and it is fitting that such a museum is based in Hulme.’
These ambitions, they continue, would guarantee ‘the restoration and preservation of the historic fabric and the features of heritage significance of both iconic theatres.
‘Hulme has experienced dramatic and traumatic architectural changes since the Second World War that have twice ripped the heart out of the community. These challenges continue with the spread of the city centre into Hulme, best demonstrated by the new high-rise buildings that loom over the residential streets of the neighbourhood.
‘The creation of (a music and arts hub) and the rebirth of these iconic North West buildings would make a substantial contribution to heal Hulme’s trauma and help revive its social and economic fabric.
‘It is anticipated that the hub would attract regional, national, and indeed international, visitors in addition to the local community users. It would also provide invaluable facilities for the large population of university students based in close proximity to Hulme.’
Baker adds they hope to ‘build back better,’ creating a complex that preserves its heritage but is restored sustainably. The necessity for a gradual regeneration, with different facets completed over several years, he says will create local opportunities - from jobs to apprenticeships - and ensure it becomes a true community project.
The group’s work has already attracted a roster of supporters, from Oli Wilson (son of Tony Wilson, a keen advocate of socially driven enterprises) to organisations like Heritage UK and Hulme Community Forum. With plans well underway, next steps include assessing the viability of a museum and developing a funding strategy, while continuing to seek help from influential leaders such as Andy Burnham, Richard Leese and social developers like One Manchester.
Want to get involved? The Friends are currently seeking support from anyone who could help to secure the building; whether through community actions, financial support or expert advice. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Alternatively, simply share the campaign and let’s hope Hulme’s theatrical history can enjoy a new heyday.
Main image: Ian Grundy