Visit the "Grand Old Lady" of Port Elizabeth and discover a center for the emerging creative industry in Nelson Mandela Bay. The majestic Athenæum was declared a national monument in 1980 and stands on Belmont Terrace, bordered by the historic Port Elizabeth streets Military Road and Castle Hill. This historic building is one of the few examples of the classical style of architecture in the city and was designed by George William Smith. Home of the Little Theatre, this multi-purpose venue offers a diverse space for live performances, exhibitions, events, conferences, workshops, meetings, showcases, and launches.
History of the Athenæum
The original Athenæum was founded at the height of the Victorian era, in the 1850s, when little public entertainment was available in the city. A group of citizens gathered "to promote a larger variety of cultural and scientific projects." Committees requested a land grant to create a Town Hall, library, and other buildings along with the Athenæum. When the foundation stone of the Town Hall was laid in October 1858, the conditions of the land grant secured accommodation for the Athenæum forever. Initially the Dramatic Society of the Athenæum was very active, but then for years there was little heard of the Athenæum. During this time the library expanded and took the space originally allocated to the Athenæum. In 1893, the Art School in Port Elizabeth, the Port Elizabeth Young Men's Institute, the Photographic Society, and the Port Elizabeth Society came together to revive the Athenæum and the old claim to its accommodation in the Town Hall, where it opened again officially in 1896. Five years later, the building acquired a new wing, the Loubser Hall. This Hall would be enlarged in 1946 and be transformed into what is now known as the Little Theatre. In the early years of the new millennium the building fell into a state of disrepair, resulting in its closure during the latter half of the early 2000s. The Little Theatre continued to operate.
The Athenæum and Little Theatre have since been renovated by the Mandela Bay Development Agency, 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 in South Africa. The building once again has new life in Port Elizabeth and continues to house and nurture creative industry talent. The Little Theatre is now home to the Port Elizabeth Music and Drama Society which occasionally stages small productions and modern musicals. It includes a very modern pop art foyer. Its 250 multi-colored seats and unique raked stage is a vibrant but intimate space for just about any theater performance. The ever-present art exhibition on the perimeter of the Athenæum includes the 67 Beaded Quotes, a personal interpretation of 67 of Nelson Mandela's quotes by a collective of bead workers from the Eastern Cape. The Athenæum regularly holds all varieties of performance art including stage productions, music, art intervention, and exhibitions. Book a show or simply pay a visit to this thriving cultural center for a fascinating glimpse into local artistic talent in the Port Elizabeth area.