Melbourne’s beloved music venue, Festival Hall, has been purchased by evangelical Christian church Hillsong.
The concert hall, which has hosted world-famous acts including the Beatles, Frank Sinatra and the Bay City Rollers, has been up for sale for more than three years.
During one of Hillsong’s virtual church services on Sunday, senior pastor Brian Houston announced they had purchased the property under their new commercial entity “Community Venues”.
“Since early 2019 we began to talk about Festival Hall … By God’s grace we have been able to purchase [it] and it is going to become the city location for Hillsong Melbourne,” he said.
Title records show the deal was struck on 16 October, the church purchasing the venue for $23,375,000.
While Houston did not go into great detail, it appears the venue will still be open to outside performances from musicians and other artists, with Hillsong being the “anchor tenant” holding church services each Sunday.
“We’re going to continue running it as a community venue, it’s going reach the community,” he said.
The huge single-story venue has been a staple of Melbourne’s event scene for more than a century. Built in 1915, it was destroyed by fire in the 1950s and rebuilt in time for the Olympic Games. It has hosted acts such as Oasis, Smashing Pumpkins, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and more recently the pop stars Ed Sheeran and Lorde. It has also been a key venue for metal bands such as Slayer and Faith No More.
Hillsong is known for its modern rock’n’roll take on Christianity, attracting a large young following including pop star Justin Bieber. But the organisation has come under fire in recent years.
Houston’s father, and Church founder Frank Houston, was accused of sexually abusing nine boys, and in 2015 the royal commission into institutional responses to child sexual abuse found Brian had failed to report his father’s abuse to police.
Brian Houston has also openly stated that while the church welcomes gay people, Hillsong is “not a church that affirms a gay lifestyle” and openly homosexual people cannot hold active leadership roles.
The new ownership of Festival Hall has already caused some musicians to boycott the venue, including metal band the Amity Affliction.
“I don’t want any Amity shows giving any money to Hillsong, so see ya later then Festival Hall,” tweeted lead singer Joel Birch.
I don’t want any Amity shows giving any money to Hillsong, so see ya later then Festival Hall.
— Joel Birch (@JoelDTD) October 25, 2020
Houston addressed the possible backlash in his service.
“Not everyone’s gonna like it, I’ll tell you now … But I believe the Lord loves it and I sure love it and you love it, so thank God,” he said.
Houston made a point in his service to state the money used to purchase the Hall was set aside before the Covid-19 pandemic and therefore could not be used to otherwise support the church community during the crisis.
“I just wanted you to know that during a pandemic we do not sort of splurge out. It’s something that has been planned and that we were prepared for.”
He noted that Hillsong is planning to renovate the heritage-listed building significantly, including seeking to build multiple stories to host other gatherings such as a children’s ministry.
In 2018 the fate of the comparatively small stadium was threatened as it struggled to compete with large arenas. In 2018, developers proposed knocking down the hall and replacing it with two large apartment complexes. This was quashed when the building was heritage-listed later that year.
Since then, former owner Stadiums PYT LTD have been looking to sell off the landmark.