Chester’s Art Deco Odeon cinema set for £37 million development

Chester Theatre - Artist impression Copyright Bennetts Associates Architects

Chester Theatre - Artist impression Copyright Bennetts Associates Architects - Credit: Copyright Bennetts Associates Arch

Chester always sparkles at Christmas and now there are plans to give the city a £37m gift, as Paul Mackenzie reports

Chester Theatre - Artist impression Copyright Bennetts Associates Architects

Chester Theatre - Artist impression Copyright Bennetts Associates Architects - Credit: Copyright Bennetts Associates Arch

Chester is changing. Don’t worry, the city is still a wonderful place to live, work and visit. It remains the historic jewel in Cheshire’s glitzy crown. It continues to be one of the finest shopping destinations in the country. The night life is as good as ever. And there’s no change in its status as one of the most attractive places you’ll find anywhere – in fact only last month it was shortlisted as one of Europe’s prettiest cities.

But while much is staying the same, one of the city centre’s landmark buildings is to be given a new lease of life which will make the city even more attractive.

The Art Deco Odeon cinema building on Northgate Street is to be transformed into a new cultural centre which will house two theatres, a small cinema, a café and bar and a state-of-the-art library.

The Grade Two listed building has been a fixture in the city since 1936 when its opening night was attended by Douglas Fairbanks Jnr and Odeon founder Oscar Deutsch himself.

If all goes according to plan, the building’s second opening night should be held in the autumn of 2016, its 80th anniversary year.

Many of the cinema’s original architectural features will be retained in the £37 million development and project director Graham Lister said: ‘Buildings like this offer fantastic opportunities – it will be as interesting to come to the building as it will be to see productions or films there. It will be a real draw for the city.

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‘There has been no permanent theatre in Chester since the closure of the Gateway Theatre. This cultural enterprise will provide the city with an 800 seat theatre as well as a small cinema and a studio theatre with 150 seats and the library. The plan is to integrate all these functions inside the wonderful 1930s Art Deco Odeon building.

‘Theatres are a connection to the community and I think that’s what has been missing since the Gateway closed – a way for people young and old to connect with the arts. It’s not just about going to a show, it’s about the building and taking part in events and workshops, even just having a cup of tea there.’

Commerce House, the ugly eight-storey 1960s office block which stands next to the Odeon is being demolished to make way for the 800 seat auditorium, orchestra pit and backstage facilities.

And while it is expected that the new cultural heart of the city will become popular with visitors to the city, changes are also underway at Chester Zoo which is already one of the area’s biggest tourist attractions.

The £30m Islands project, which is planned to open in 2015, will help propel the attraction into the global premier league and could add as many as 150,000 extra visitors a year.

Land there is being transformed into the islands of south east Asia. Linked by a series of bridges and including a journey on water, the development will be home to animals and plants from south east Asian islands including crocodiles, Sumatran tigers, orangutans and exotic birds.

Islands will be the first in a series of exotic developments at the zoo over the next 25 years and the zoo’s development director Simon Mann said: ‘Islands gives visitors the best of both worlds – the opportunity to stroll through these magnificent islands on foot or to take the more leisurely option of the boat trip.

‘This is the first phase of a masterplan, at the end of which we might have six experiences each about the size of seven football pitches. Obviously a lot can change over a quarter of a century – you only need to look at how perceptions about zoos have changed in the last 25 years to see that – so we know we have to be flexible, and completing the work in stages allows us to do that.

Tops for the shops

Chester is awash with wonderful shops packed with great gift ideas. All the big names are here and so are scores of delightful independents. Here are three that caught our eye

The Arc. The current holder of both Chester’s best retailer and best independent titles, this showcase of British designers and makers is housed in an 18th century warehouse on Commonhall Street. There’s an ever-changing selection of work in ceramics, textiles, jewellery, glass, metal and wood including some by designers based in Cheshire.

Rococo Chocolate. The Grosvenor Hotel is already a favourite with visitors to the city and now there’s another tasty reason to pay a visit – the only Rococo Chocolate shop in the country outside London. The menu includes a number of regulars and some seasonal flavours – this month you can tuck into mandarin and tonka bean or a spiced pecan praline. Manager Annie McNicholl said tasting the exotic new flavours is one of the great perks of the job but admitted: ‘I do sometimes like a Kit-Kat or a Snickers.’

Bollands. Chester’s Rows are one of the city’s treasures – delightful historic walkways lined with a superb selection of shops. You’ll find Bollands next to the Rows Café which is also run by Penny Warren who took on the business 18 months ago. They stock over a hundred varieties of tea and thirty-plus coffees. But what should you enjoy with your Christmas cake this month? Penny said: ‘We have a Christmas blend coffee which would compliment the cake well. As for teas, there’s a Christmas blend with almond, vanilla and spices or there’s a spiced orange tea with cloves and peel that would also go well.’

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