Architects: Adam Brothers, 1768-74
Surviving fragments of the Adam Brothers’ ambitious, but ultimately failed, speculative housing and warehouse development along the Thames.
The Victorian renovation of the Embankment has ensured that little remains of the Adelphi, once one of the most prominent architectural ranges on the banks of the Thames. Conceived by Robert, John and James Adam, the Adelphi was a speculative venture that reaped success and failure in equal measure. Success was in the creation of a new residential idiom for London, building 24 high quality homes above rentable warehouse space, in a stately yet domestic Palladian style that had never been seen before in the capital. Failure was predominantly a financial affair. After going to great lengths to buy the land and river banks from the city (a matter of great controversy, worsened by the fact that the riverside warehouses repeatedly flooded), the brothers ran into cash-flow problems, had to lay off over 3,000 workers, and eventually resorted to a lottery to raise the funds to complete the scheme – a measure that damaged their reputation in London.
Covering around 3.5 acres of land, the original scheme contained several blocks of houses behind the riverfront showpiece, Adelphi Terrace, that surmounted the arcaded warehouses opening onto the Thames. These latter dank ‘Adelphi Arches’ were notorious in Dickens’ London for sheltering the destitute, and a tunnel leading into them can still be seen in Lower Robert Street. The creation of the Embankment in the nineteenth century altered the complex massively and the central block was entirely demolished in 1936. Today, houses survive in Adam, Robert and John Adam Street (so named after the architects – ‘Adelphi’ is the Greek word for brothers), the most prominent of which is undoubtedly the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). The style of the latter is more temple-like than the domestic residences, probably on account of its institutional nature, with the main façade comprising three bays with masonry features such as fluted Ionic columns, a variant of the Venetian window above and with palmette or ‘anthemion’ detailing. The frieze is interrupted by the words ‘Arts and Commerce Promoted’, referring to the Society’s original name when it was founded in 1754 as The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. Much of the interior has been altered or restored but some rooms display characteristic mouldings and ceilings, such as the entrance hall and great room.
Best time to visit: to see some of the remaining interiors, attend a talk at the RSA (the institution is generally closed to the public at other times).
Address: 8 John Adam St, London WC2N 6EZ, and surrounding streets.