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The Adelphi, London: designs for a speculative complex built by William Adam & Co., 1768-84 (168)

Being keen to design a large-scale architectural project, Robert Adam, alongside all three of his brothers – John, James and William – undertook this vast speculative project to build a complex of roads, townhouses, cottages, shops, a tavern, warehouses, stables and a subterranean roadway. They formed an equal partnership under the company name of William Adam & Co., which was a firm of builders suppliers set up by William in 1764. Their project came to be known as the ‘Adelphi’, the Greek word meaning ‘brothers’. Robert was the creative force behind it, John was granted power of attorney, William provided the workforce, and James was the public face.

In 1769 the brothers agreed to a 99-year lease (1768-1867) of 3 1/3 acres of land for £1,200 per annum from the trustees of the 3rd Duke of St Albans. St Albans himself had fled the country to avoid his creditors. The site in question was bordered by the River Thames to the south and the Strand to the north, and was located between the modern landmarks of Waterloo Bridge and Charing Cross Station. It had been known as Durham Yard, taking its name from Durham House, the home of Richard le Poor, a thirteenth-century Bishop of Durham who built the first structure on this plot. Durham House was home to numerous famous figures throughout British history (detailed in Weinreb, 1983, p. 251), and was not finally demolished until 1660. The site was then used for general housing for a little over a century.

The plot rose in a slope from the riverbank to the Strand 40 feet above. Employing at least 2,000 men, the brothers began by clearing the site of all preceding buildings, and built a vast network of vaulted arches to raise their development to the level of the Strand. These arches contained a network of stables, coach houses, warehouses and subterranean roads. The brothers had hoped to lease the warehouses to the Board of Ordnance with an anticipated rental of £2,281.10s per annum. Unfortunately, the ground level of these spaces was around two feet lower than it should have been, and they were liable to flooding at particularly high tides, and the Board of Ordnance declined the lease. Between 1780 and 1865 the arches and roadways beneath the Adelphi were known as ‘The Dark Arches of the Adelphi’, and were frequented by the homeless people of London.

Further to this, in 1771, and despite protest from the City, William Adam & Co. were granted permission to embank the riverside along the front of the Royal Terrace. This was done to attract tenants who may otherwise have been deterred by the foul smell at low tide. Furthermore, they considered the addition of a screen wall to give privacy to the development, but this was not executed.

The early designs for the layout of the buildings above can be seen in plans within the collection at Blair Adam and the King’s Maps collection at the British Museum. There is also a plan of the vaults and subterranean roadways in the collection at the London Metropolitan Archives. The details of these drawings can be found in Rowan, 2007, pp. 48-49. Including 69 townhouses, the plan was clever, cramming as many varied properties as possible onto this relatively small site, and thereby maximising the potential profit of the scheme. It also memorialised the Adam brothers themselves, with streets named after each one. These early plans do not show the development as it was built. The arrangement of various properties was to change, but the general layout and formation of the streets were executed as the brothers intended from the beginning. The principal differences to the early plan are to be found on John Street, where the [Royal] Society of Arts took up residence, and a large gap was required on the north side opposite Robert Street to allow James and Thomas Coutts’ pre-existing house the light to which it was legally entitled. Please see a plan of the Adelphi as built attached to this scheme note.

Most of the buildings at the Adelphi were townhouses, with brick façades, ornamented with stucco dressings and door cases, and metal balconies and railings made by the Carron Company of Falkirk (of which John Adam had a share). They were technologically advanced, with water on every floor, and a water tower – fitted with a lightning conductor – was fed by the river and gave provision for three fire engines. The houses on the Royal Terrace were the most opulent properties, with smaller houses on the surrounding streets, a tavern and small shops towards the Strand, as well as small cottages for less wealthy occupants below the road in front of the Royal Terrace.

The structure and fabric of the complex was the responsibility of William Adam & Co., and the drawings for the building work were the property of that office. Therefore, there are no plans for the scheme within the Adam office drawings collection at the Soane Museum. However, drawn promotional material, and the interior decoration of the various buildings were the responsibility of the office of Robert and James Adam, and therefore many drawings for those element of the scheme survive at the Soane Museum. The surviving drawings can tell us much about the way in which Robert Adam went about amassing the hundreds of designs that were needed. Although it was normally rare for him to reuse old designs, it has become apparent that this practice was more common among his speculative work. Many of the extant designs for chimneypieces intended for the Adelphi were either duplicates or variants of other Adam chimneypieces from throughout the 1760s.

In 1772 the Adelphi houses were nearing completion, but a run on the Scottish banks – precipitated by the bankruptcy of Neale, James, Fordyce and Downe’s banking house – caused considerable financial difficulty for the Adam brothers who had taken loans of £124,000 by January of that year to build the Adelphi. The brothers nearly went bankrupt, causing John Adam to mortgage the family estate, Blair Adam for £36,000. Then in July 1773, thanks to Robert’s position as MP for Kinross, the brothers obtained a private act of Parliament to establish a lottery to dispose of the Adelphi property, and thereby stabilise their finances. This was an innovative decision, as until that time lotteries had only been used by the state to gather funds for specific projects.

The lottery raised £218,500, comprising 4,370 tickets costing £50 each, with 108 prizes of unsold properties as well as a handful of the Adams’ collection of artworks and antiquities. Unsold tickets reverted to William Adam & Co., and when the winning tickets were drawn on 3 March 1774, the Adam brothers were most fortunate to receive several of the prizes themselves, thereby retaining some property at the Adelphi, and much of their art collection. However, even after the lottery, the Adam brothers’ debt remained high, with annual interest resulting in a debt of £95,000 by 1780. Eventually, after John, Robert and James had all died, William Adam was declared bankrupt in 1801.

The lease of the Adelphi site came to an end in 1867 and the property reverted to Messrs Drummonds, who had succeeded to the estates of the Duke of St Albans. The lease was renewed, but opened the floodgates for numerous alterations to be made. In 1927 the estate was sold at auction in three lots. The largest lot included the central block of the complex, including the Royal Terrace and much of the south side of John Street. These houses were stripped of their fittings and on 2 April 1936 an auction took place at 6-7 Royal Terrace under the auspices of Messrs Farebrother Ellis & Co., including chimneypieces, grates, wainscoting and doors, and another auction was held on 7 May 1936 for dado rails, columns and balconettes. Once these sales were complete, the entire block was demolished. A new building was erected on this site (by then known as the Adelphi Terrace) to designs by Collcutt and Hamp. Other parts of the Adams’ complex were demolished piecemeal, and all that survives of the Adelphi are 1-3 Robert Street, which are much altered internally, and had a dormer storey added in 1908; the facades of 6-10 Adam Street, also with a new dormer storey, and with little of the eighteenth-century fabric behind; and the Royal Society of Arts building on John Street (18 Adam Street and 18-21) later 2, 4, 6 and 8) John Street) which have also received a dormer storey, and have been joined together and received some internal alterations.

I am grateful to Brigid von Preussen, PhD candidate at Columbia University, for sharing her research on the provenance of the Adelphi chimneypiece designs, and to Colin Thom of the Survey of London for sharing his extensive research on the history of the development.

R. and J. Adam, The works in architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1773, 1778, 1822, Volume I, part IV, pl. iii-iv, Volume III, part I, pl. I; A.T. Bolton, ‘The Adelphi and the air board’, Country Life, 5 October 1918, pp. 289-292; A.T. Bolton, The architecture of Robert and James Adam, 1922, Volume II, pp. 18-47, Index pp. 33-34, 62, 72, 75, 89; F.M. Smith, ‘An eighteenth-century gentleman: the Honorable (sic) Topham Beauclerk’, The Sewanee Review, Volume 34,, April 1926, pp. 205-219; Farebrother Ellis & Co. auction catalogue, The Adelphi: catalogue of marble & wood chimneypiece, fire grates, wainscoting and doors, 2 April 1936, pp. 1-21; Survey of London, Volume XVIII, 1937, pp. 99-118; J. Summerson, ‘The Society’s House: an architectural study’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 15 October 1954, pp. 920-933; D. Yarwood, Robert Adam, 1970, pp. 143-147; A. Rowan, ‘After the Adelphi: forgotten years in the Adam brothers’ practice’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, Volume 122, September 1974, pp. 659-710; G. Beard, The work of Robert Adam, 1978, pp. 47-48, 63; B. Weinreb, and C. Hibbert (ed.)., The London Encyclopaedia, 1983, pp. 4, 251, 429; Sotheby's auction catalogue, Important English Furniture and Decorations, 16 October 1993, p. 79; D.G.C. Allan, ‘Coffee houses, taverns and great rooms’, Journal of the Royal Society of Arts, 2/4, 1998, pp. 119-121; H.R. Smith, The Story of Garrick and his life at Hampton, 1998, pp. 1-13; D.G.C. Allan, The Adelphi past and present: a history and a guide, 2001, chapters 5-6; D. King, The complete works of Robert & James Adam and unbuilt Adam, 2001, Volume I, pp. 41-47, 77-82, Volume II, pp. 66, 68-72; The Georgian, Autumn/Winter 2003, p. 46; S. Bradley, and N. Pevsner, The buildings of England, London 6: Westminster, 2003, pp. 326-330; C. Parry-Wingfield, ‘David Garrick and the art of living’, Proceedings of the Huguenot Society, Volume 28, number 8, 2004, pp. 176-186; A. Rowan, Vaulting ambition: the Adam brothers, contractors to the metropolis in the reign of George III, 2007, pp. 12-24, 41-65; Collage, London County Council photograph library online; 'Toplady, Augustus Montague (1740–1778)' and ‘Garrick, David (1717-1779)’, Oxford dictionary of national biography online; 'Robinson, John I (1727-1802), of Wyke, Syon Hill, Isleworth, Mdx.' in History of Parliament online

Frances Sands, 2015
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