The Melbourne Athenaeum’s 181 years

By Meg Hill

Approaching its 181st birthday in November, the Melbourne Athenaeum is living through its third pandemic.

In 1891 the “Russian Flu” swept across the world. Almost three decades later the 1919 “Spanish Influenza” made an even more dramatic run through the world’s population – killing somewhere between 20 and 50 million people.

In 1918, when life was reorganised around the Spanish Flu, the Athenaeum art gallery was hosting the Australian Tonalists’ first group exhibition – it was an art movement that would flourish between the wars. 

That year, masks and social distancing became a feature of everyday life like they are today.

The start of 2020 saw the Athenaeum reopening after closure for major refurbishments. It was gearing up for its yearly peak period in March and April when it is one of the CBD’s major hosts of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.

Eight months of lockdown meant 2020 turned into a very different 181st year for the Athenaeum – but the building has not been empty or idle.

“While we’ve been closed, plenty of work has been going on behind the scenes,” Athenaeum building manager Sue Westwood said.

“Theatre technicians on Job Keeper have turned maintenance workers to give the theatre some much needed loving attention in the auditorium and backstage, the restaurant is being renovated and the final touches to a significant library refurbishment are being made.”

The Athenaeum, one of Melbourne’s three oldest institutions, is housed in a heritage-listed three storey brick building on Collins St.

It leases parts of the building to tenants, including the 900-seat theatre, a restaurant (Bistrot d’Orsay) and a jewellery store.

“Those tenants really give us the funding to maintain this heritage building and also to operate our library,” Ms Westwood said.

“Of course, during the pandemic theatre and hospitality are two of the hardest hit industries. So, we as an organisation needed to talk to our tenants and find ways to assist them.”

The Athenaeum decided to provide rent relief to tenants.

A 1936 drawing of the library’s reading room.

The Melbourne Athenaeum Library. Photo: Grace Petrou

A photo taken of the library in 1957.

Men read the daily news in 1962.

“That’s a financial hit to us, but at the moment we are able to manage it because we also know that those two industries will be probably be two of the last to find a way to reopen,” Ms Westwood said.

Paul Boath, the theatre operations manager, said in a normal April the theatre seated thousands of people every night.

“When you go from an average of 3000 people a night for a month or so for the Comedy Festival to absolutely nothing, it’s a shock,” he said.

“Each year you gear up for that sort of thing.”

Mr Boath has been leading the theatre’s team of technicians in finely detailed maintenance work touching up and enhancing the theatre.

“The technicians have sort of turned into Michelangelos, painting very delicate filigrees,” he said.

“There’s a young lad we found who was very diligent about colour matching. He will get bits off the wall and match the colour perfectly and we end up with the colour that we always wanted to see.”

Ms Westwood said the work was important in making sure the heritage-listed buildings were not left to sit idle through lockdown, as well as keeping its tenants in a healthy place.

“From our perspective, as the owners of this heritage buildings – which is really a community run building – we’re looking forward to have our tenants with us on the other side,” she said.

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