Four cinemas, all named ‘Astoria’, were built for a limited company, the Picture House Trust, founded by A Segal with Edward A Stone as its chairman and principal architect. How much was the work of Stone and how much was in fact designed by the job architects, such as Thomas Somerford and Ewen Barr is a matter for serious speculation; nevertheless there is a consistency of external treatment in the team’s work, whether cinemas or theatres, while the interiors of the Astorias - and Brixton and Finsbury Park in particular - are exceptional in any oeuvre. They are indeed the finest constructed in Britain in the ‘atmospheric’ style, championed in the United States by John Eberson, an Austrian emigre with a specialisation in mechanical engineering who used elaborate lighting effects and stage set ‘flats’ to achieve remarkable scenic effects at relatively modest cost. Audiences were made to think they were seated in Italian Gardens or a Spanish courtyard by virtue of the surroundings, and of twinkling stars and cloud effects produced by complex lighting circuits and smoke machines. The illusion of being outdoors on a warm Mediterranean or sub-tropical night is an essential part of the architecture. In Britain only the Astorias at Brixton and Finsbury Park attempted this wholeheartedly, and Finsbury Park is the only one to feature twinkling star lights, produced using a complex electric circuit whose contacts expand and contract to complete or cut out the current intermittently. While Brixton is consistently in the popular Renaissance style, Finsbury Park veers from its ostensible representation of a Moorish hillside village set on either side of the proscenium towards more eclectic effects, a merger of Indian Moghul motifs and popular Art Deco swirls and zigzags in the spectacular foyer being particularly hard to define. The centrepiece of this is a fountain in a star-shaped pool that mirrors the octagonal form of the double-height and balconied space around it (a similar fountain at Brixton was removed as too many cinemagoers fell in it). At Finsbury Park, however, the elaborate foyer and complex geometry is an essential mask to a complex site, where the auditorium is well to the rear of the corner entrance, reached via a corridor at a sixty degree angle to the outer vestibule.
The Astoria, Finsbury Park opened on 29 September 1930, the same day as Stone’s Whitehall Theatre. Through most of the 1930s the programming combined film with live entertainment, including the Astoria Orchestra, conducted by ‘Anton’ and the Astoria Girls; indeed the opening gala evening featured no film at all, but a ‘Spectacle of Empire’ with music and dance. The spectacular cinemas built by the Picture House Trust were made possible because of money from the American Paramount Corporation, and from 1931 they became known as the Paramount Astorias. The chain was acquired by Odeon in 1939 and after the war Finsbury Park became known as the Odeon Astoria, predominantly showing films but with occasional interludes from the Wurlitzer organ. In the 1960s it began to be used for concerts, including Frank Sinatra, Miles Davies, the Beatles and Cliff Richard, because the best available films went to the nearby Odeon, Holloway Road. In September 1971 it closed, reopening in November as a full-time rock concert venue with a show by The Who. Chipperfield’s Circus followed with a Christmas season. Rock concerts were held regularly between June 1972 and January 1982, run by Biffo and Strutworth who in turn fell foul of Greater London Council safety regulations and its demands that maintenance be carried out to what became a listed building in January 1984. It lay derelict from 1982, with a brief use in the early 1990s as an Elim Pentecostal Church, until in 1996 its freehold was acquired from Rank by the Universal Church, a Brazilian foundation. Served with a repairs notice to carry our an extensive backlog of minor repairs, the Universal Church employed Nicholas Rule of Farrington Dennys Fisher to supervise the restoration of the building.
- 1929 Owner/Management: A Segal, Picture House Trust Ltd
- 1929 - 1995 Owner/Management: Roze Family, freeholders
- 1930 Design/Construction: job architectsE A Stone with Tommy Somerford & Ewen Barr- Architect
- 1930 Design/Construction:Charles H Bell- Consultantengineer
- 1931 Owner/Management: Paramount Pictures
- 1939 Owner/Management: Odeon (Rank Organisation)
- 1995 Owner/Management: Universal Church of the Kingdom of God
- 1998 Alteration: of Farrington Dennys Fisher, auditorium restored for church useNicholas Rule- Architect