Olympia London unveils secret Victorian era cinema for Open House

18 Sep 2014

Olympia London is to unlock its doors to a little known event space, shedding light on an intriguing nugget of cinematic history. The Pillar Hall’s first floor, where one of the earliest systems of projecting moving images onto a screen once entertained Victorian audiences, will be open for discovery. Normally closed to the public, the decommissioned cinema space will be open as part of Open House on Saturday 20 September.

Visitors will see evidence of the original cinema, created in 1895 just as moving image fever was taking off – the Lumiere brothers would record first footage with their cinématographe in the same year. Olympia’s early cinema can be seen via the projectionist room and tiny window where the film loader would have worked. There is also evidence of the original screen, on which audiences are thought to have watched films including, A Shoeblack at Work in a London Street and A Rough Sea at Dover. This exciting chapter of history can be enjoyed in beautiful settings– the ballroom sized room’s stunning features include ornate ceiling, sumptuous oak panelling and, on the Pillar Hall’s ground floor, a columned hall evoking a rich, eclectic classical style. The exterior façade has a palazzo front with red brick and stone dressings.

The story of how the cinema came to be is entwined with the history of invention in Victorian England and reflects the craze for spectacle in the era. While Olympia itself was being flooded with canals, real chariot racing scenes and lions for the amusement of the Queen Victoria, its Pillar Hall was the testing ground for innovations in cinema. The ‘theatregraph’, one of the earliest moving image systems of the time, was brought into Olympia thanks to an enthusiastic board member named Sir Augustus ‘Gus’ Harris. After seeing the experiment shown to scientists at the Royal Society, he struck a deal with its inventor, Robert Paul (who had exhibited the kinetoscope, a motion picture box at sister venue Earls Court) and the cinema at the Pillar Hall was created. 

Tom Lambregts, Head of Marketing at Olympia London, commented: “The Pillar Hall’s first floor is one of Olympia London’s lesser known spaces, which happens to have a fascinating history as an early cinema. We are thrilled to be sharing the story of this and showing the space to the public. Open House is a fantastic project that enables Londoners to experience new places and to appreciate the city’s stunning architecture, so we could not be more delighted to be a part of it.”

Viewings from 10am – 2pm on Saturday 20 September
No booking: first come, first served

About the Pillar Hall
The ground floor of the Pillar Hall is used as a corporate event venue for meetings, launches and events. It is a columned hall in a rich, eclectic classical style and will be open as well as its first floor, which houses the decommissioned cinema space. The first floor is protected by English Heritage and is normally closed to the public.

About Open House London
Open House was started in 1992 as a small, not-for-profit organisation to promote public awareness and appreciation of the capital's building design and architecture. The intention was to open up London's splendid buildings to the general public who don't otherwise have access.

- ends -

For further information please contact:
Belinda Liversedge, Communications Manager, Earls Court and Olympia
Belinda.liversedge@eco.co.uk / (0)20 7370 8838