The Athenæum, declared a national monument in 1980, stands on Belmont Terrace, flanked by historic Port Elizabeth streets, Military Road and Castle Hill in the suburb of Central near the port. The building is one of the few examples of the classical style of architecture in the city and was designed by George William Smith.
The initial Athenæum was founded at the height of the Victorian era, in the 1850s – when little public entertainment was available in the city – by a group of intellectual and enthusiastic citizens “to promote a larger variety of cultural and scientific projects”.
Committees from the library, the Athenæum and the municipality held a meeting on October 20, 1856 to request the Colonial Government to grant land for the erection of a Town Hall with municipal offices and space to accommodate a library, new room, an Athenæum and a museum. On October 18, 1858 the foundation stone of the Town Hall was laid. The conditions of the land grant, on Market Square (now Vuyisile Mini Square), secured accommodation in the Town Hall for the library and Athenæum for all time.
It was thought that since Port Elizabeth had “already acquired a name for its mercantile success”, that “taste and refinement” in the creative arts would follow naturally. Initially the Dramatic Society of the Athenæum was very active, but then somehow, for years there was little heard of the Athenæum. During this time the library expanded and the space originally allocated to the Athenæum in the Town Hall was occupied by the library and Museum, and later fully utilised by the municipality.
During 1881 there was agitation for the establishment of an Art School in Port Elizabeth and by 1882 this was accomplished. Soon its rapid growth demanded larger and better premises. Dr Hewitt who had started the Port Elizabeth Young Men’s Institute in 1891, was also looking for premises for his project and was joined by the Photographic Society, also founded in 1891, and the Port Elizabeth Naturalist Society. In 1893 the four organisations got together to revive the Athenæum and the old claim to its accommodation in the Town Hall, stated in the Deed of Grant on June 8, 1859.
The Town Council gave the new Athenæum Council land at the junction of Military Road and Belmont Terrace and offered to erect a building at the cost of £4 000 if the societies would subscribe £1 000, which they did. The agreement was signed in July 1896 and it was stipulated that the property would remain a possession of the Town Council but would be free of all rates. The governing body, the Athenæum Council, would be responsible for interior maintenance but the exterior maintenance and the gardens would be the responsibility of the municipality. In addition, the Council was granted, if required, free use of certain sections of the Hall, ten times a year.
Five years after the official opening of the Athenæum on July 24, 1896, it acquired a new wing which opened on April 17, 1901. The Hall was called the Loubser Hall after M. M. Loubser, a great Port Elizabeth benefactor, who sponsored the additions to the building.
In 1946 the Port Elizabeth Music and Dramatic Society (PEMADS), rented and enlarged the Loubser Hall in the Athenæum, creating what is now called the Little Theatre. After the Little Theatre was declared unsafe due to structural defects, Denzil Levy, a prominent architect, undertook the structural renovations and improvements. Under his leadership as the president of the Athenæum Council, the Athenæum became the home of PEMADS, the Photographic Society, the Technicon Arts, Port Elizabeth Cultural Society, Eastern Province Wild Flower Society and the Athenæum Club.
In the early years of the new millennium the building continued to oscillate between functional space and struggling building. Ultimately it fell into a state of disrepair, culminating in its closure in the latter half of the 2000s and complete disuse of the southern part of the building. The Little Theatre, however, continued to operate over this period.
The Athenæum and Little Theatre have since been renovated by the Mandela Bay Development Agency’s (MBDA) – a project that started in 2010 in a drive to profile Nelson Mandela Bay’s tourism and heritage assets ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa. The renovation was completed in 2012 – as part of its larger inner city precinct upgrade on behalf of the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality (NMBM) with the financial support of the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund (NLDTF).
The Grand Lady of the creative industry once again has a new lease on life and continues to house and nurture creative industry talent as it always has – and will continue to do into the future.