In the mid-1960s John Lennon wrote some lyrics that would eventually become the Beatles classic In My Life. He later described his rejected first draft, which name-checked places near his Liverpool home, as “the most boring sort of ‘what I did on my holidays bus trip’ song”.
In the original version, among the “places I’ll remember all my life” was the Abbey cinema in Wavertree. “In the circle of the Abbey, I have seen some happy hours,” he wrote. Fellow Beatle George Harrison was also a regular.
By 1979, the year before Lennon was shot dead in New York, the Abbey, a magnificent art deco edifice that could accommodate more than 1,800 people in its vast double-tier auditorium, had reached the end of its life as a cinema. Now a campaign has been launched to save the building amid fears that its owners, the supermarket chain Lidl, could seek to demolish it and replace it with a purpose-built store on the site.
An application for the Abbey to be listed has been submitted to Historic England, and almost 2,500 people have signed an online petition calling for the building’s preservation and suggesting its upper floors could be used for community arts.
After its final screening – The Towering Inferno – the Abbey followed the path of hundreds of redundant cinemas across the UK. Its ground floor became a supermarket, and the circle was later converted into a bingo hall and then a snooker club. The most recent inhabitant, the Co-op, vacated the Abbey in April this year, and it was bought by Lidl a month later.
Clare Devaney of Love Wavertree, which organised the petition, said the Abbey’s Beatles heritage and the building itself were of huge significance to the community.
We want to welcome Lidl but we want to preserve something of a building that has resonance with local peopleRobert Zatz, the Wavertree Society
“Wavertree has been pretty neglected and there’s been under-investment, but it has a beautiful built heritage. The Abbey has architectural value, cultural value and a Beatles heritage,” she said.
In its heyday the Abbey – designed by Sir Alfred Ernest Shennan and opened in 1939 – was illuminated with neon lights. The plush interior included a glass mosaic floor in shades of blue with silver stars, columns, sweeping staircases, walnut panelling and domed ceiling lights. The stalls held 1,126 seats, with another 744 in the circle, which had a licensed bar in its foyer.
In Picture Palaces of Liverpool the cinema historian Harold Ackroyd wrote: “The striking main entrance and its semi-circular sweep continue upwards to the apex of the building. The whole bay consists of windows which diminish in height as the structure ascends. These are separated vertically by five columns of black faïence tiles, while grey faïence tiles are used to form the horizontal separation of the windows. The small windows near the roof are styled with Norman arches whose lines are pleasingly carried downwards.”
The Cinema Theatre Association, which is supporting the listing application, said the Abbey was “a fine example of the best cinema design of its period, designed by an important Liverpool architect to be worthy of its prominent site in the historic Wavertree village. It formed a key part of the landscape in which at least two of the Beatles grew up, and their references to it give it outstanding national importance.”
Another of Shennan’s art deco buildings, the Greenbank Synagogue in Liverpool, built in 1936, was listed in 1983. Ten years ago it was put on the Historic England’s heritage at risk register. Historic England confirmed it had received an application to list the Abbey.
Lidl’s plans for the building are uncertain. In response to enquiries from the Wavertree Society, the company said it was “considering all options for the site, which include the potential for a new building of high quality design. Options to retain the building are being explored, but we do need to consider the potential to adapt it to meet Lidl’s operational requirements as well as the structural integrity of the existing building.”
It added that the company’s preference was “to erect purpose-built food stores” but it had previously reconfigured existing buildings.
Robert Zatz of the Wavertree Society, who saw films at the Abbey as a child, said: “We want to welcome Lidl but we do want to try to preserve something of a building that has a lot of resonance with local people. I don’t think Lidl realises the extent of feeling in the community.”
In a statement to the Observer, Lidl said: “While we’re in the process of considering options for the site at Wavertree, we will be consulting with the community and stakeholder organisations throughout the extensive planning process.”