Adaptive reuse proposed for the Athenaeum in Sorrento

Feature Image: Athenaeum Sorento Front Elevation, 2009. Source: Victorian Heritage Database

Heritage Victoria is assessing a permit application for partial demolition and alterations to change the use of the Athenaeum at 28-36 Ocean Beach Road, Sorrento from a cinema to retail premises. The permit application has received a high community response, with concerns questioning the extent of acceptable change to heritage sites undergoing adaptable reuse, and the social loss of the sites ongoing use as a cinema.  

The Sorrento Athenaeum has operated as a cinema venue since the 1930s and was Classified by the National Trust in 1996 as a place of State Significance. The National Trust Statement of Significance for the place notes the following:  

The Sorrento Athenaeum was constructed in 1894 for local entrepreneur Isaac Bensilum, and designed by J F Gibbins, and is architecturally and historically significant at a State level as an early and unusually ornate and generally intact privately built 19th century theatrical hall, a rare building type. The auditorium features a large cornice and pilasters, three deep plaster domes, set into a ceiling of gridded/floral plasterwork, which also lines the proscenium wall, the Athenaeum auditorium is particularly decorative, and has something of the character of a major theatre. 

Originally accommodating visiting theatrical companies and personalities during the summer season, as well as dances, balls and bazaars, films were also shown from at least the mid-1920s. 

The building is architecturally significant because of its largely original auditorium, and the two storey facade, built of local limestone with brick dressings (unfortunately painted over). It is also of note as an important element in the Back Beach Road Streetscape, despite the addition of a cantilevered verandah and almost complete alteration of the ground floor facade in the 1930s. 

The site was included on the Victorian Heritage Register in 2010 (H2227) as an early example of a theatre in regional Victoria.

The proposal to adaptively reuse the Athenaeum for retail purposes has come about due to a recent decline in cinema-visitation and rising costs to run the cinema. As part of the permit application, the applicant provided a Report on ‘Reasonable or Economic Use’ arguing for the need to alter the use of the building since the cinema operator ended their lease.

When considering change to state listed sites, the Heritage Victoria ‘Principles for considering change to places in the Victorian Heritage Register’ (2022) notes the following,

Heritage Victoria is generally supportive of change to places provided that the impacts on the cultural heritage significance are limited and appropriate, and/or the reasonable or economic use rationales outweighs the impacts on its cultural heritage significance. Where the impacts to a place are substantial, the proposal for change may not be supported even if there is a strong reasonable or economic use rationale. Heritage Victoria is generally unsupportive of change which contemplates major interventions such as demolition of significant fabric and the construction of new built form which disrupts the setting or has other negative impacts on the cultural heritage significance of a place.










Image: Athenaeum Sorrento view to front of auditorium, 2009. Source: Victorian Heritage Database

In May we made a submission to Heritage Victoria, noting our concerns regarding the extent of demolition and proposed removal of fabric to facilitate the refurbishment of the site. The National Trust supports the adaptive reuse of heritage buildings to ensure they have an ongoing purpose and remain viable assets to their communities. We generally supported the plans to adaptively re-use the Athenaeum, however we raised issue with the proposed demolition of the projection room and the original timber stairs.

The National Trust was contacted by a number of community stakeholders during the permit’s advertising period. Some groups were accepting of the need to change the use of the site for economic reasons, and took little issue with the proposed alterations to do so. While, other arguments were raised concerning the appropriateness of refurbishing the building as a retail space, due to the proposed degree of demolition and removal of significant fabric.

Read our full submission here.

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