Melbourne Athenaeum to receive $200,000 upgrade

By Katie Johnson

The iconic heritage-listed Melbourne Athenaeum theatre on Collins St has received $200,000 from the state government to conduct urgent conservation works. 

The 170-year-old art and cultural hub will use the money to repair the roof and clerestory windows as part of the government’s $2.3 million Living Heritage Program. 

Melbourne Athenaeum business manager Sue Westwood (pictured) said the theatre was “very fortunate” to receive the grant as the works were desperately needed.  

“We’re very grateful Heritage Victoria recognised the need for the repairs and the importance of the building as it’s hard to find the funds to maintain the heritage building as a not-for-profit,” Ms Westwood said. 

“The roof and lantern windows on the second floor are in a state of disrepair as the timber has deteriorated over time, and water often leaks through.” 

Ms Westwood said the original windows were installed around 1930 to enhance the lighting in the art gallery that existed from 1910 to 1971. 

“The lantern windows have barely been touched since then aside from exterior painting, and at the moment are covered up to provide a black-out scenario,” Ms Westwood said.  

The Athenaeum was founded in 1839 and has been community owned and operated since 1842. 

It contains Melbourne’s oldest library on the first floor, and the theatre is available for the community to access for school productions, large events and independent artists. 

Pre-COVID the theatre hosted events for the Wheeler Centre, the Writers Festival, the Comedy Festival, the Melbourne Opera, and productions like The Wedding Singer

Ms Westwood said the Athenaeum’s philosophy was to provide a heritage building that was available to the public. 

“We have the library on the first floor which is operated by the not-for-profit which owns the building, the theatre, Bistrot d’Orsay restaurant and the Rutherford Jewellery store all within the Athenaeum,” Ms Westwood said. 

“We’ve been working really hard with our tenants to make sure they’re with us when the pandemic is over and ensure they have emotional and moral support.” 

The Athenaeum library has also recently reopened to members one day per week for click-and-collect services. 

Ms Westwood said it hoped to extend the service to those outside the 10km radius when restrictions eased. 

“Members are able to order books online and then pick them up each Thursday, and we also have book and screen clubs still operating over Zoom,” she said. 

The Athenaeum is one of 19 restoration projects that will receive funding under round six of the living heritage program. 

Other sites include St Peters Eastern Hill Precinct in East Melbourne, Puffing Billy Locomotives and Rolling Stock in Belgrave and Horsham Town Hall. 

Minister for Planning Richard Wynne said the program was about protecting significant sites across Victoria for future generations to enjoy and learn from.

“These are the sites that tell stories about our history and play a major role in rural and regional Victoria’s tourism industry – we’re proud to protect these treasured community assets,” Mr Wynne said. •

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