Steps and Canopy
As a Grade II listed building, any works require very careful attention. We commissioned Barry Taylor Associates Architects to redesign the steps to improve the accessibility for all our visitors. The old steps were dangerous and dated from 1935. Complying with current access regulations and planning permission, we took the access ramp across the front of the entranceway, with new steps down to the High Street. This greatly improves the safety for all our customers and allows easy access for wheelchair users into the box office for the first time.
Our canopy was looking in a very sorry state too, and the situation was made more complicated by the decay in the sheet steel frame which also was added to the building in 1935. We undertook a comprehensive stripdown and refurbishment. We have also improved the lighting and added smart new signs.
Restoration of the Auditorium and Stage
By 2013 we were aware that the stage area – at the heart of the Athenaeum – had been neglected for far too long. The first stage of these improvements was the purchase of new radio microphones and a sound mixer desk for use in shows. In Summer 2014 we refurbished damaged seats and had them all cleaned for the first time since 1983. This is an on-going task and in 2020 we had another section re-covered.
In August 2015 we replaced the main stage rigging with a new electric winch system. As a sign of the times, it will no longer be necessary for backstage staff to “Know the Ropes” as we have replaced the entire system used to raise and lower scenery for shows. The old hemp rope system – used to suspend the large backdrops and scenery – no longer conformed to safety legislation. In the past, a strong pair of crew members in the ‘gods’ above the proscenium arch manually took the strain on the hemp rope and lowering scenery in unison. The new – near-silent – electric winches are operated with the flick of a switch from ground level in the wings. In some respects, it does seem like the end of an era, but for posterity, we were keen to preserve as much of the original hemp rope, pulleys, and cleats as possible. It has served us well for at least fifty years, possibly longer, and it is quite rare for these flying systems – which were common in Georgian times – to still be in-situ. The very first versions of this type of stage machinery were used by the Greeks in the 5th Century and later by the Romans. We have carefully disconnected the hemp rope and bar but left all the rigging and pulleys in place as a reminder of how things used to be done. Many of the heavy steel scaffold poles that supported the lighting lamps were also replaced with a new fixed, lightweight aluminium structure. This has reduced the load on the wooden roof trusses over the stage. This project cost over £20,000 and would not have been possible without the financial support of Wiltshire Council Area Board, The Ernest & Marjorie Fudge Trust, Warminster Town Council, and the Athenaeum Friends.
A major project was the demolition and rebuild of the main toilet block. The brick skin of the old toilet block was built in 1900 as a skittle alley and access corridor, covering over the original gardens, privy and stable block from the days of the London and Search Hoop Inns 1600s-1857. It was subdivided in the 1930s, during the days of the cinema, to create the toilets that we have now been removed. Part of it originally housed the generator for the cinema projector too. The roof was altered and repaired in about 1968, and lastly, the store cupboards and disabled toilet were added in 1993.
In 2012 after several years of planning and much fundraising, the demolition of the old Athenaeum Toilet facilities took place and new £130,000 facilities erected in their place.
Old Toilet Facilities Face Demolition (above)
After Refurbishment (below)
Our Generous Benefactors
Landfill Communities Fund
The National Lottery
The Ernest and Marjorie Fudge Trust
Garfield Weston Foundation
Wiltshire County Council
Wiltshire & Swindon Community Foundation
Warminster Town Council
Warminster & District Film Society
The Athenaeum Limelight Players
The Athenaeum Masqueraders
The Foyle Foundation
A Bigger Athenaeum in 2020
Close Centre Merger
The Trustees have for some years been negotiating a Community Asset Transfer of the neighbouring property known as The Close Centre from Wiltshire Council to expand the Athenaeum Centre. This was built in 1901 as an extension of the Athenaeum and used as the Warminster County Secondary School until 1931. It was later used by local primary schools, housed the town library, and most recently used as the youth centre, and a centre for vulnerable adults.
The Athenaeum is taking ownership of the freehold of all of the Close Centre land and building, with a lease of the ground floor back to Wiltshire Council for use by WAVE group – ‘Warminster Adults Valuing Everyone’. In February 2020, the top floor was the first part taken over by The Athenaeum. It was partly refurbished and is now being put to use by hirers and residents for meetings and rehearsals.
Why was this a good idea?
The Athenaeum continues to thrive and we had out-grown many areas of the building. For some time we have been aware that we were in need of better theatre facilities; wardrobe and props storage, rehearsal space, scenery storage, construction space, crew parking and vehicle access to the stage. Not all of these wishes could be met fully by taking over space next door, but it certainly helped.
How is the extra space being used by the Athenaeum?
In the short term, the former dance studio on the first floor is being used for rehearsals and classes. The small function room is now available for events and meetings. The old recreation room is being used as a temporary store for some of our technical equipment but in time will be available for events and rehearsals. Ownership of the yard parking area will give better access for stage crew and give space to realise our long term plans to redevelop the rear of the building with new dressing rooms, workshop and scenery bay.
What were the risks?
As with any expansion, the challenge was to make it pay and not be a liability. We worked to negotiate the best terms possible to lessen any financial burden on the Centre. We did not have a survey of the condition of the building, its roofs or services. We had to be certain that we were taking on a sound and water-tight building. Alteration works were needed to combine the services and fabric of the two buildings, for which there was a financial cost, this was covered with a £49,000 Plain Action EU grant in February 2020.