Ark of Covenant plans for historic Hackney cinema

Plans by an Ethiopian Orthodox Church to turn a rare example of an Edwardian cinema into a 1960s pastiche replica of the Ethiopian church which claims to house the Ark of the Covenant are being fought by a conservation group.

The Friends of Clapton Cinematograph Theatre (FCCT) have been campaigning for five years to restore one of Britain’s oldest purpose built cinemas in Lower Clapton Road to its former glory as a cultural centre for the whole community.

But now the cinema’s owners St Mary of Zion have submitted a planning application to the Council to alter the heritage building which lies in the Clapton Pond conservation area.

Nearly 800 people have signed a petition calling for the building to be preserved, and eminent cinema historian Dr Nicholas Hiley remarked on the petition site: “Such survivals from the earliest days of cinema are rare and should be preserved as an important part of British social history.”

But the Orthodox group which bought the building last May wants to alter the building’s fa�ade so it resembles the Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion in Ethiopia’s Axum, where it is claimed the Ten Commandments are inscribed on the Tablets of Law.

They want to convert the cinema from a nightclub into a place of worship.

Secretary of the FCCT, Julia Lafferty, of Ickburgh Road, said the group had been reassured last summer the church intended to preserve the building and collaborate with them to bring it back to community use.

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“This commitment has now been abandoned, as the planning application which has been submitted to Hackney Council carves up the auditorium - an integral part of the former cinema’s historic character,” she said.

“I don’t know why they want to do the pastiche building, it’s a bit of a surreal situation, why not go the whole hog and have the Taj Mahal,” she added.

The cinema dates from 1910, and shut its doors for the last time in 1979.

It reopened three years later as nightclub Dougies, which was renamed the Palace Pavillion.

Following a series of street shootings involving patrons of the club which led to the area being dubbed the “Murder Mile,” its licence was withdrawn in 2006.

In 2009 MP Diane Abbott presented an early day motion in Parliament calling for the centre to be dedicated to the late internationally renowned playwright Harold Pinter, who lived opposite the cinema during his youth.

Last year the FCCT was in discussion with Mr Ken Edwards, the former owner of the Palace Pavilion, hoping to buy the building.

But the Royal Bank of Scotland confiscated the building and sold it to St Mary of Zion last May.

In defiance, 78-year old Mr Edwards barricaded himself in the building for six weeks, until he was evicted.

The Gazette was unable to contact St Mary of Zion.