One of the most striking buildings that Harrow has to offer is the current Zoroastrian Centre in Rayners Lane, North Harrow.
Indeed, this local landmark has particularly personal significance to me – with it dominating the images that I have of the area. Its strange, art-deco style – especially its striking façade known sometimes as the ‘elephant’s trunk’ – has long stood out in my mind.
It was to my surprise, then, to learn years ago that the building is a religious centre. Yet this was not always the case, and delving into the building’s past can shed some light on what remains one of the borough’s most impressive sights.
Originally designed as a cinema, the building’s roots go back almost a hundred years now, with the centre having been built on the designs of one Frank Ernest Bromige in 1936, for the Grosvenor cinema company. Bromige was a London-based architect, now famous for a number of buildings across the city – including the likes of the Dominion Hounslow, the former Kingsland Empire in Dalston, and, arguably also, the Zoroastrian Centre itself.
Practising out of Westminster, Bromige’s design of the cinema was in line with the art-deco style that was well-loved at the time. Everything about the building was intended to be dramatic – from the curving canopy of the foyer, to the metal canopy outside that originally provided protection from the elements at street level.
This all ties into something that was the subject of a past Harrow Online article: Metro-land, and the period of unprecedented growth and development that Harrow experienced in the early twentieth century as a part of this vision. The Zoroastrian Centre’s roots are tied explicably into this period, its dramatic art-deco design likely owed to the dream of Metro-land itself.
Built by the local firm T F Nash Ltd., the cinema was but one of the new buildings to spring up in the 1930s as a result of Rayners Lane’s establishment on the Metropolitan Line. Nash built a number of homes on estates in South Harrow and Eastcote as well as Rayners Lane, though the current Zoroastrian Centre easily remains the most prominent among them.
Opening for the public on October 12th 1936 with Jean Hersholt in The Country Doctor, the auditorium had a seating capacity of over a thousand people, and the building was kitted out with six dressing rooms, a café in the main foyer, and a stage some 44-feet deep. In May 1937, the cinema came under the possession of Oscar Deutsch and his still-enduring cinema chain Odeon, taking on the Odeon name until it changed to the Gaumont in 1950.
Yet in the years that followed, the local cinema found itself in more and more financial trouble, and in 1964 it was finally forced to close its doors – not long after the cinema reverted back to its Odeon name again.
This marked the effective end of the centre’s success as a local cinema. While in 1981 it did reopen as Ace Cinema, this was to be a short-lived venture – it closed again in the October of 1986.
That said, it was at this point, with the cinema’s return as Ace Cinema in 1981, that the building did receive its Grade-II listed status, which was then upgraded to a Grade-II* in 1986 with the closure of the cinema. For those unfamiliar, Grade-II buildings are those of special importance, yet a Grade-II* ranking is even rarer – with only 5.5% of all listed buildings having such a rank – thereby indicating just how special the building truly is, not just locally but nationally.
Four years after the closure of Ace Cinema, the building was reopened and converted into the Grosvenor Cine/Bar Experience nightclub, which later became the Studio Warehouse nightclub. In 2000, however, the building became what it remains to this day when it was purchased by Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe to serve as a place of worship and European headquarters for the group. Under their stewardship, the building has since been renovated and restored.
With that, we return to the present, and to the enduring presence of the building in the local landscape. For decades now, this building – once a cinema, then a nightclub, now a place of worship – has endured as a local point of interest, though more recently, since the tail-end of the 1980s, that interest has become national in some respects, and transnational in others.
But more than that, the Zoroastrian Centre – as it is known these days – will always be a link back to the origins of the modern borough; a monument, in some ways, to Metro-land, and the time of growth and development that revitalised the borough and kick-started the Harrow we now know.