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Upper Assembly Rooms, Bennett Street, Bath: unexecuted designs for the building, c1765-68 (14)

1765-68
The original Lower Assembly Rooms at Bath were built in 1708 to designs by an unknown architect. It survived until 1820, when the building was largely destroyed by fire; was rebuilt as the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution to designs by George Allan Underwood (1792-1829), and finally demolished in favour of road widening in 1933. By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, the popularity of Bath was such that the Lower Assembly Rooms were not adequate, and another assembly rooms, funded by subscription, was planned in the more fashionable Upper town.

Designs for the new Upper Assembly Rooms were made by Robert and James Adam, undoubtedly under the aegis of their friend William Pulteney, for whom Robert was later to build Pulteney Bridge in Bath. These designs are thoroughly Roman in character, and clearly inspired by at least one of Robert Adam’s Grand Tour drawings.They contain a ballroom and concert hall, flanking a central hall. However, the date of the Adam brothers' scheme for the Upper Assembly Rooms is not known, and it was ultimately rejected as too expensive. According to Rowan, the first stockholders’ meeting took place in January 1765, so the Adams' designs may have been made at any time from then onwards. Moreover, as the Adams' scheme was unexecuted, it must predate the executed design by John Wood the younger (1728-81), which was built in 1769-71 at a cost of £20,000.

Following the nineteenth-century decline of public assemblies, the building was used for public lectures, and then in the early twentieth century for showing films. In 1931 the Assembly Rooms was bought by E.E. Cook and SPAB, who gifted it to the National Trust. The building was then leased to the Bath Corporation who undertook restoration, and reopened it in 1938, only for the building to suffer severe bomb damage in 1942, and to undergo restoration once again, reopening in 1963. The Assembly Rooms are now open to the public, with the Fashion Museum in the basement.

Literature:
A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, Index p. 3; J. Cornforth, ‘The Bath Assembly Rooms restored’, Country Life, 9 January 1964, pp. 56-59; D. King, The complete works of Robert & James Adam and unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume II, pp. 29, 53; A. Rowan, "Bob the Roman", Heroic antiquity & the architecture of Robert Adam, 2003, pp. 27-29; A. Foyle, and N. Pevsner, The buildings of England: Somerset, North and Bristol, 2011, p. 131

I am grateful to Dr Jenny Nex, Curator of Music Instruments Museums Edinburgh, and Martin Hillman, Friends of St Cecilia's Hall, for information regarding the early history of a proposed music hall in Edinburgh (later St Cecilia's Hall). Three of the drawings here attributed as being for the Bath Assembly Rooms have previously been attributed as being for Edinburgh. See drawings notes.

Frances Sands, 2014
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