The Athenaeum

Part I - grand designs gone awry

By Mark Thompson

 
Photo:Diorama of the scene from the south. The first houses of Adelaide Crescent are on the right.

Diorama of the scene from the south. The first houses of Adelaide Crescent are on the right.

A unique structure

Few people standing today in Palmeira Square, and looking south through Adelaide Crescent towards the sea, would know that they are on the site of a unique structure, which once tested the civil engineering expertise of its time to the very limit. Henry Phillips, the instigator of the project, is remembered, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons.

A grand idea

Born in Henfield in 1779, Phillips worked in banking and teaching before becoming known as a botanist and horticulturist. He published several books, befriended John Constable and the Brighton architects Thomas Read Kemp and Amon Henry Wilds, and it was he who laid out The Level (1822) and the Kemptown enclosures (1828). But he had grander ideas, and it was one of these which led to his grief.

Plans for an 'oriental garden'

In 1825, working with Wilds, he drew up plans for an “oriental garden” behind the King’s Road seafront. This large steam-heated conservatory, which he called the Athenaeum (“temple of Athene”), was to mimic the Royal Pavilion’s oriental design and to contain palms and tropical trees. A library, reading-room, and school were to be attached.

First failed enterprise

But finance was unforthcoming; the site was sold in 1827, and Sillwood House rose where the Athenaeum should have stood. Amon Henry Wilds completed Oriental Place, originally intended to lead to the garden; its name still commemorates this first failed enterprise.

Part II of this account can be seen here

This page was added on 10/12/2017.
Comments about this page

Wasn't this actually build but collapsed just after or just before completion? Or am I thinking of another structure?

By Geoff Stoner (31/01/2018)

I think there is some confusion here in the original article (which I have often succumbed to myself!) The Antheum (pictured above) in what became Palmeira Square, collapsed the day before it was due to open. The Atheneum was a different project and was (as noted above) in Oriental Place. Both are examples of the exceptional advanced thinking and entrepreneurship in 1820s Brighton.

By Geoffrey Mead (01/02/2018)

To add to the confusion, just a few yards north of the site of the Antheum, there is a block of flats on the corner of Salisbury Road and Lansdowne Road called "The Athenaeum"!

By Alan Hobden (04/02/2018)