The Athenaeum or Melbourne Athenaeum is one of the oldest public institutions in Victoria, Australia, founded in 1839. The first President was Captain William Lonsdale, the first Patron was the Superintendent of Port Philip, Charles La Trobe and the first books were donated by Vice-President Henry Fyshe Gisborne. Originally it was called the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institute. This was expanded in 1846 to the Melbourne Mechanics’ Institution and School of Arts. The building on Collins Street was completed in 1842. The Athenaeum played a role in the establishment of Mechanics’ Institutes in Victoria.
The Melbourne City Council met in the building until 1852 when the Melbourne Town Hall was built.
The Institution changed its name to the Melbourne Athenaeum in 1873. At that time, as now, a major activity was a library. In 1877, membership was 1681 and in 1879 there were 30,000 visits to the library. In 1880 it was reported ‘that the floor of the large hall was the only one in Melbourne expressly constructed for dancing’. The front of the building was rebuilt in 1885 and 1886.
In October, 1896, the first movie was shown in Australia in the Athanaeum Hall. The Hall became a regular venue for screening films and the premier of The Story of the Kelly Gang by the Tait brothers was at the Athenaeum in 1906. The theatre in its present form was created in 1921. The theatre was the first venue in Australia to screen talking pictures. The Melbourne Theatre Company leased the theatre from 1976 to 1985 when the lease was taken over by various entrepreneurs who formed AT Management in 1997.
The Athenaeum housed a small museum in its early days and then an Art Gallery, which closed in 1971, after which it was converted into a smaller theatre space by the MTC. This space, as of 1997 is now home to the Comedy Club and, in the last few years, Melbourne Opera.
The library continues to exist as a large subscription library with members throughout Victoria, although its membership has declined from a peak of 7,579 in 1950.
The building was added to the Register of Historic Buildings in 1981 and is listed on the Victorian Heritage Register.
It has been used as a venue for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and since 2006 has been the venue for the Last Laugh Comedy Club since it moved from North Melbourne.
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Date and Time: 22 November 2010 1.01pm
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The Melbourne Athenaeum started as Melbourne’s first Mechanics Institute on 12 November 1839 – just four years after Melbourne was itself founded. Its original mission was defined as “the diffusion of literary, scientific and other useful knowledge amongst its members”. This was to be achieved by maintaining a circulating library, reading room and art gallery and the establishment of classes and lectures.
The building was completed in 1842 and since then has been renovated and redeveloped to accommodate Melbourne’s changing cultural needs. The building is classified by the National Trust and included on the Victorian Historic Buildings Register and the Register of the National Estate.
The Athenaeum is now a three-storey brick building with a classical stuccoed façade, which is an example of the boom style architecture applied in the late 1880s. The facade features pilasters, label moulds, a bracketed cornice and a parapet in the centre of which is the niche containing the statue of Athena. The awning features a decorative pressed metal underside.
When originally completed, it was a two-storey rendered brick structure set back from and raised above street level on a grassy rise behind a cast iron fence and with a Doric porticoed entrance. It contained a library, reading room, a Hall in which the Municipal Council met and other important meetings were held, and accommodation for the Town Clerk.
By 1857, two single-storey wings had been added to the facade on either side of the entrance and out to the street. In 1872, a new Hall, designed by architect Alfred Smith, in the re-named Melbourne Athenaeum, was opened by the Governor. It was approximately thirty metres long by fifteen metres wide with a raised platform extending across the full width at the northern end.
Along the east and west walls ran a clerestory of double-hung sashes above which were ventilators behind ornamental grilles. Eight hundred people could be accommodated (seated) in the hall and 150 in the balcony, which was situated at the south end supported on elegant light iron columns.
The next phase of construction occurred in the mid 1880s, when the front of the building as it now stands was constructed. In 1886 the new building was opened. This represented essentially a remodelling of the area between the new hall of 1872 and Collins Street. The architects for the new work were Smith and Johnston.
In 1910, the upper hall was converted into an Art Gallery, and in 1913 the main Library was renovated. In 1921, the hall was leased to Frank Talbot, who engaged the firm of Henry White and Gurney architects to convert the hall into a theatre. The awning was added at this time and the work was completed in 1924.
The Athenaeum’s first tenant was the Melbourne City Council which held its meetings here while the Town Hall was built. The Athenaeum housed Melbourne’s earliest museum collection and was the venue for lectures by Mark Twain and Sir Redmond Barry.
The first feature film, The History of the Kelly Gang, was premiered as was the first ‘talkie’, The Jazz Singer, before the then cinema space was transformed into theatres. The theatres have been graced by some of the finest Australian and international performers, including Dame Nellie Melba, Sir Laurence Olivier and Barry Humphries.
The Athenaeum Art Gallery operated from 1903 to 1971 where many artists and art groups exhibited paintings, including such famous names as Arthur Boyd, Rupert Bunny, Arthur Streeton, William Rowell and H Septimus Power.
Throughout the 170 years, the Athenaeum has been home to a subscription-based, lending library. Today, the Library holds a 60,000 strong collection and hosts a growing program of authors talks and book launches.
Today’s Athenaeum also houses the Athenaeum Theatre and Comedy Club, a café and retail shop – all of which are leased to managers.