Opened in 1912, the Hippodrome is believed to be Scotland’s earliest surviving purpose-built cinema. Abandoned in 1980 and restored by SHBT between 2006 and 2009, it is an important example of the positive impact that a building’s restoration can have on the local community.
The Pollock Hammond Partnership
The surviving 1911 plans for the Hippodrome clearly show its intended use as a cinema. Designed to bring the glamour of Hollywood to the small town of Bo’ness, the project was by no means an assured financial success. It was driven by the enthusiasm of Louis Dickson, who lived locally and had trained as an electrician before becoming a cinematographer. The possibility that the cinema may not prove popular probably contributed to the relatively simple design, which was also characteristic of Matthew Steele’s architecture and move towards an Art Deco style.
Any worries about the Hippodrome’s use proved unfounded. During the first few decades of its existence the cinema’s popularity (and increasing fire regulations) enabled / necessitated a series of changes. In 1926, a stepped roof was added over the main hall to create a large, shallow dome inside. This was followed by the extension of the balcony to its present position, the enlargement of the ticket office and creation of a new manager’s office above it, topped with a small cupola, and finally a new projection box in 1947.
Despite the Hippodrome’s success, Dickson chose not to expand his business into other towns, instead remaining as the building’s proprietor and manager. Many of Dickson’s short films survive in the National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image Archive. They depict local events such as the annual Bo’ness Children’s Fair and were created with the express intention of being shown at the Hippodrome.
In 1946, ownership of The Hippodrome passed to a Caledonian Associated Cinemas, who made a number of minor changes and updates, such as a new enlarged projection box. The building continued in regular use as a cinema until 1975, when it became a bingo hall before being abandoned a decade later. Over the course of the 1990s, the empty building fell victim to fire, vandalism and damp incursion, all of which made it increasingly difficult to return to public use.
In 1991 the Bo’ness Heritage Trust acquired ownership of the Hippodrome. They carried out a series of remedial works whilst attempting to find a use of it. By the time the building was gifted to SHBT in 1996, little progress had been made. An initial proposal to turn the building into a youth centre fell through due to lack of a viable business plan and so in 2002 SHBT commissioned a full Feasibility Study in order to establish the exact cost of remedial works and what the building might best be used for. This resulted in a proposal by Falkirk Council to take on the building and return it to its original use as a cinema.
The elevation of the Hippodrome’s listing status from Category B to Category A in 2004 provided further impetus to the restoration and in 2005 the building was named as a key project in a successful bid for Heritage Lottery Fund money as part of the Townscape Heritage Initiative scheme. Receipt of this funding, a total of £5 million to be invested into the town’s built heritage over a number of years, was a key milestone in enabling both the Hippodrome project and the wider regeneration of Bo’ness.
On-site work began September 2006 and was completed in April 2009. The Pollock Hammond Partnership led the design team and worked closely with Falkirk Council, as the identified end user, to ensure that the restored building would be able to operate effectively. The project aimed to reuse as many of the original fixtures and fittings as possible and to restore the building’s historic character whilst inserting a number of modern amenities. The decision was taken early on to retain the 1920s and 1930s additions as these had occurred relatively early in the building’s history and gave the Hippodrome a recognisable profile that enhanced its Proto-Art Deco aesthetic.
Extensive paint analysis on the building’s interior established a number of key features of the 1926 decorative scheme, but also showed a confusing array of other paint schemes, indicating just how regularly the Hippodrome had been redecorated during the early 20th century. The results were taken as a guide for the redecoration, with the main auditorium scheme imitating that of 1926 without attempting to accurately recreate it, as many elements were still in doubt. The ‘sunburst’ pattern on proscenium arch and purple and yellow paintwork either side of the screen were both informed by surviving evidence, as were the ‘stone’ colours of pink and yellow used for the balcony and upper walls and the ‘celestial blue’ paint used for the outer sections of the ceiling. All of the original stalls seats had been lost due to rot and fire, but a number survived in the balcony and were re-upholstered, whilst the rest were replaced with similar modern (and more comfortable) versions. A major change was the insertion of accessible toilets and a bar area, which were both inserted in new freestanding internal pods under the balcony.
Once all the major design and decorative work had been completed, Falkirk Council took responsibility for the internal fit-out. This included all the new seating, projectors and sound system that would allow The Hippodrome to operate as a 21st century cinema. The Hippodrome finally reopened with a red carpet launch in April 2009. The project cost a total of £2.1 million, with key funding being given by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Falkirk Council through the Bo’ness Townscape Heritage Initiative, Historic Scotland, the Architectural Heritage Fund, Falkirk Environmental Trust and the Manifold Trust. The internal fitout was also funded by the Scottish Arts Council.
The project had strong local involvement throughout, with many people keen to share their memories of the building and see it brought back into public use. As a result, the Hippodrome has become emblematic of SHBT’s role in revitalising buildings that not only have historic and architectural significance, but also communal significance.
Winner of the Stirling Society of Architects’ Best Building Award 2010
Winner of the RICS Scotland Community Benefit Award 2011
Shortlisted for the Andrew Doolan Best Building in Scotland Award
The Hippodrome Today
The Hippodrome is now leased to Falkirk Council on long-term basis and is operated by Falkirk Community Trust. It shows both new releases and family classics and since 2011 has hosted an annual silent film festival, affectionately known as ‘HippFest’. In 2019, the building was awarded the prize for the Best Cinema Experience at the Scottish Hospitality Awards.