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Part II:Grand plans revisited

The Athenaeum/Anthaeum
Unknown artist

Part I of this account can be seen here

A new proposal

Undeterred by his previous failure to launch his ambitious project, a few years later, Henry Phillips proposed an even larger structure for a site further west, in Hove. This one had the confusingly similar name of the Anthaeum (“flower-house”). It was to be built of cast-iron and glass, and at 164 feet in diameter (36 feet more than the dome of St Peter’s in Rome), and 64 feet in height (81 feet to the top of the external cupola), it was boasted to be the largest domed structure anywhere in the world.

Pre-Victorian ‘Eden Project’

There were to be some 40,000 square feet of glass. Heated by coke boilers to a constant 32° C (90° F), it was to contain not only tropical and European trees, but flowers and shrubs, gravel walks and arbours, a lake containing fish, seating for 800 people, and an observation gallery in the cupola. There would be exotic birds flying about. It was, quite simply, a pre-Victorian Eden Project

Successful financial backing

The Anthaeum, unlike the Athenaeum, found backing: Sir Isaac Goldsmid, who owned the land, advanced the funds. Wilds was again architect. The foundations were dug out in 1832. The great iron ribs arrived at Shoreham to be hauled to site by teams of 20 horses. Glaziers began installing the 100,000 panes. Like Kubla Khan’s stately pleasure dome – that “miracle of rare device” – this fantastic edifice became a solid reality.

Nearing completion

“This magnificent building,” JG Bishop recalled, “impressed all beholders with its grandeur and beauty.” As it neared completion in August 1833, crowds visited it, “all admiring the boldness of mind that had projected it, and the marvellous skill with which it had been reared. The effect on entering the interior was especially grand and beautiful; the walks were partly formed, and many thousands of plants, some of them extremely curious and rare, covered the walls and mounds of earth.”

A vital flaw in design

But appearances hid major problems. Bishop claims one design fault was that it was not “the section of a perfect sphere, but an oblate sphere”. Others record that the contractor, a Mr. English, neglected to install a vital central pillar to support the structure, or that it was constructed, and then removed on English’s orders. Little is known of Mr English, but it seems he was determined to make the Anthaeum the world’s largest unsupported dome. His pride was to prove fatal to the design.

Part III here

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