The Melbourne Athenaeum Inc.'s 2024 Annual General Meeting will be held at 1pm, Monday 15 April, in the Melbourne Athenaeum Library.

For more information please refer to the events page or speak to a staff member.

1930Our Famous Lift

"One day it struck me that in the light area [the space between the Town Hall and Athenaeum buildings], there was room for a lift, and on examination, it was found that we could erect one.
After consultation with the various authorities, and by concession to Mr Talbot, we were able to proceed and in June 1930, the lift was established. It has been a boon to members."

'The Melbourne Athenaeum : History and records of the Institution 1839-1939' by R.W.E. Wilmot from The Melbourne Athenaeum : A Journal of the History of a Melbourne institution, 2009.

Mr. R.W.E. Wilmot, the secretary of the Institution from 1909 to 1948, together with the institution's honorary architect, Mr. Sydney Smith, pondered for years over the possibility of installing a passenger lift from the ground floor theatre foyer to the first floor library and the second floor art gallery.

A series of events in 1925 created an opportunity for this to occur. A fire in part of the Melbourne Town Hall followed by the demolition of the adjoining Coffee Palace created the opportunity for the Athenaeum to claim "ancient lights" rights, which, if enforced, would have prevented the erection of the new Town Hall. An agreement was eventually reached between the parties, whereby the Athenaeum's rights were sold to the City Council who agreed to maintain its eastern wall in a clean state, thus making space available to accommodate the lift works.

At the end of 1929, architects Sydney Smith, Ogg & Serpell provided plans and estimates for the lift project and a Lift Sub-committee was formed comprising the President, Vice-President and Treasurer of the Athenaeum. Quotes were obtained for the construction of the lift shaft and the machinery room on the top floor. Budgets were established for running costs, such as annual maintenance of the elevator, the weekly wages of its operator, accident insurance and electricity usage. It was noted that a revenue loss would occur as one of the shops would have to be closed for the duration of the works, however a rent rise could be implemented on the other tenancies.

In early 1930, a quote for the lift shaft construction was received from A.S. Kemp & Son for £1,640 and 54 tenders for the lift were received, including ones from Johns & Waygood for £1,508 and Edminston & O'Neall for £1,285. To finance the construction, the Athenaeum's members were asked to approve a loan of up to £3,500 and happily the Bank of Australasia (now ANZ Banking Group) agreed to grant an overdraft. Tenders were soon approved and work on construction of the shaft commenced in April 1930, with an estimated 'operation-ready' date of 30 June, 1930 which was realised. In January 1931 a subscription to the Lift Owners' Association of 10/- was made.

The lift is still operational and is one of only two of its vintage in Melbourne. It is loved by many library patrons for its decorative and stylish interior, best described as Interwar Neo-classical or Classical Revival. It contains simple arched panels of wood inlay, original polished metal signs and an elegant domed light. The wooden lift façade is also classically inspired with a broken pediment above decorated with a funerary urn, which lends a touch of the Baroque; the urn as a decorative motif became popular during the period of Queen Victoria's mourning, from late 1861.

Carol Andrews
Melbourne Athenaeum Volunteer


'The Melbourne Athenaeum 1839-1939: history and records of the institution' by R.W.E. Wilmot, 1939.
'Minutes 1929-1931 of the Melbourne Athenaeum'.
Architectural details provided courtesy of the National Trust, Victoria.