The Athenaeum, Muswell Hill

As the Old Schoolhouse is closed for the time being, we thought we’d share some extracts from HHS publications over the coming weeks and months.  Cinemas of Haringey by Jeremy Buck was published by HHS in 2010 and includes a section on The Athenaeum

12 Fortis Green Road, Muswell Hill, N10 3HN
Opened (for films) 23rd November 1918. Closed 14th November 1936.
Became a dance-hall, then later demolished.
Sainsbury supermarket now on the site.

The Athenaeum, Fortis Green Road, 1905
The Athenaeum, Fortis Green Road, 1905

This building was constructed in 1900 by developer James Edmondson to serve as a focal point for the social activities of Muswell Hill. The elegant classical building, with two domed towers, contained a large hall seating 466, with a balcony, and a smaller hall seating 200, as well as several other smaller function rooms. It was the scene for dances, concerts, lectures and meetings, including a debating society known as the Muswell Hill Parliament.

In 1918 the larger hall was leased out and became a fulltime cinema, operated by a company called Essandelle Ltd – the name probably formed from the two initials of the owners. There were several letters of protest in the Muswell Hill Record about this claiming that Muswell Hill would be losing an important social amenity to “the picture people”. The paper, in its editorial, hoped that the hall would be “restored to other uses before too long”.

The opening film on November 23rd 1918 was “The Conqueror” starring William Farnum, a Fox picture from the USA about the founding of Texas. No copies of this film are believed to exist today. The 80-minute silent was accompanied by the Athenaeum Orchestra. Prices were 6d (2 ½) and 1s (5p) in the stalls and 1/6d (7½) upstairs in the balcony. Performances were continuous from 2.30pm to 10.30pm.

By 1919 the lessee was James Chapman and the Kine Year Book gives the seating capacity as 500. Jack Whitehead, in his book The Growth of Muswell Hill wrote “The Athenaeum had been a dance hall and when it became a cinema it was always clear that we were sitting in a converted building with high ceilings and irrelevant decoration”!  Despite this criticism the cinema seems to have been successful and in 1923 it was acquired by Arthur Ferriss who two years later would also acquire the other cinema in Muswell Hill, Summerland. The Athenaeum was adapted for sound in June 1930 to the plans of local architect George Hastings and the number of seats reduced to a more comfortable 486.

Unfortunately, in 1935 the Odeon cinema chain announced that they would be building a “super cinema” in Muswell Hill and their final choice of site was directly across the road from the Athenaeum. In spite of protests and petitions from local residents, and from Arthur Ferriss, the new Odeon was constructed and opened in September 1936.  At the time, Ferriss was undaunted by the new competition and told the Hornsey Journal that “The Athenaeum would carry on as people went to see a film they liked”. But this did not prove to be the case and shortly Ferriss announced that “The Athenaeum will be closing as a cinema in November and re-opening as a Palais de Dance at Christmas”.

The final night was November 14 th 1936 and the closing film was “Captain January” starring Shirley Temple and “Every Saturday Night” starring Jed Prouty with June Lang as the co-star of both films. The opening of the Palais de Dance was delayed until New Year’s Eve and in early 1937 advertisements were promising “dancing, cabaret and films” but the word “films” disappeared soon after this.

The Athenaeum continued to host dances and various functions in the other rooms, including jumble sales and the religious services of different faiths, until 1966 when the building was acquired by J Sainsbury and demolished for a supermarket. This building completely upset the elegant building line of Fortis Green Road. Today the only reminder of the fine building which once housed a cinema is the cul-de-sac called Athenaeum Place.

Cinemas of Haringey by Jeremy Buck is in stock and will be on sale at the Old Schoolhouse once we re-open.

Sainsbury's, Fortis Green Road, 2017
Sainsbury’s, Fortis Green Road, 2017

Image credits

Photograph of Sainsbury’s 2017 – Janet Owen