It often surprises visitors to our club to learn that the building was designed by an architect who was only twenty four when given the commission. He had been invited by the originator of the Club, John Wilson Croker, to become a Member on the Club's foundation in 1824 and was already noted for his work designing the layout of Hyde Park, the triumphal arches at the entrance to the park at Hyde Park Corner and the Holme in Regent's Park. Burton's father James, also a Member of the Club, had worked alongside the already famous John Nash and James lived to see his son Decimus become almost as famous in his time as Nash himself.
The site of the building was over the Western corner of Carlton House, home of the Prince Regent before his accession to the throne but demolished in 1824. Our building was originally to have mirrored the United Service Club across Waterloo Place, for which Nash was the architect, but a last minute change of Nash's plans defeated this intention.
When his building was nearly finished young Decimus was persuaded to include as a frieze around the outside a copy of the recently rescued marbles from the Parthenon in Athens ("The Elgin Marbles", now in the British Museum), the frieze to be executed by John Henning, a leading sculptor of the day. This proposal was pushed through the committee despite the enormous cost (over £2,000 which was about 5% of the entire cost of the building).
The promoter of the idea was the Secretary of the Admiralty, J W Croker, one of the prime movers in the formation of the club in 1824, and a man who liked to get his own way.
Others would have preferred the money to be spent on the creation of an ice house to provide cold storage in the summer, which led to the composition of the witticism:
I'm John Wilson Croker,
I do as I please;
Instead of an Ice House
I give you - a frieze!
Croker's marble bust, by Francis Chantrey (who was also a Member of the club) is to be seen on a mantel-shelf in the drawing room, close to a bust of the club's first secretary, a sometime bookbinder's apprentice by then working on the mysteries of electricity in the laboratories of the President of the Royal Society, Sir Humphry Davy, (who was the first Chairman of the Club). This bookbinder turned engineer was Michael Faraday, who was to announce the discovery of electromagnetic induction some seven years later.
The iron-tyred wheelchair in which Faraday died in 1867 is kept in the building and can be seen on the main bedroom landing. The club benefited from its first secretary's inventiveness just before he died when in 1886 it became one of the earliest buildings ever to be lit by electric light, using its own generator until a public supply became available in the mid 1890s.
The great staircase has seen all these famous figures pass by, and many, many more. The clubhouse carries echoes of the presence of great men of the past that inspire each new generation. There are many stories - one on record describes the reconciliation at the foot of the stairs in 1863 between Dickens and Thackeray, who had not spoken to each other for years, after a famous quarrel. Thackeray, although only 52 was clearly a dying man. Dickens, seeing him slowly descending into the hallway, stepped forward, offered his hand and here in the hall made up a quarrel of some twelve years' duration so that Thackery could die at peace with the man who had once been his close friend. The scene was observed and later described by a fellow member, Percy Fitzgerald.
The club was founded as a meeting place for men and women who enjoy the life of the mind. Over the years the membership criteria have been widened and now extend to persons of attainment or promise in any field of an intellectual or artistic nature and of substantial value to the community.
Today many of the Members of the Athenæum, indeed a majority, are professionals concerned with science, engineering or medicine, but the clergy, lawyers, writers, artists, civil servants and academics of all disciplines are also heavily represented on the roll, with a small number from business and politics.
We are proud of the high distinction of many of our number, proudest perhaps of those, past and present who have won a Nobel Prize, totalling over fifty-two at the last count, including at least one in each category of the prize.
1902 saw the first award to be held by a member - this was the prize for medicine (the first of twelve to be held in that category). Prizes for Physics and for Chemistry followed two years later, our first for Literature did not come until 1907, the Peace Prize in 1949 and Economics in 1972. The latest Nobel Prizes to be awarded to Members were those for Peace and Medicine, in 1998 and 2001. Portraits and biographies of all are inscribed in a memorial volume to be seen in the club, on the first floor landing.
Fortnightly dinners bring together Members from the widest range of disciplines to hear one of their number open a discussion. Occasional concerts of music, wine tastings and gatherings simply to celebrate the changing of the seasons provide the occasions that serve to stimulate friendship and satisfy the urge to good fellowship. Guests of members are welcomed at the majority of these events.
The wide interests of today's members are reflected in the literary riches contained in the libraries on the first floor, which house some 80,000 books. The culling of unwanted volumes and their replacement with modern works, together with rebinding of older books is a never-ending process. A selection of interesting items is generally to be seen in the drawing room display case.
The clubhouse is entirely redecorated every few years, the style changing from time to time. The present treatment of the walls and curtains of the two largest rooms is derived from Decimus Burton's own sketches, lately retrieved from the archives. Some of the mahogany furniture that was designed for the club by Burton is still in use, and can be recognised from his drawings.
The smaller dining room, known as The Picture Room, is hung with portrait sketches, mainly drawn by members of the club. In the adjacent corridor are originals of famous newspaper cartoons featuring the club as it is imagined by the general public - not always bearing much resemblance to the real spirit of this place, but good fun nevertheless.
We hope that all our visitors will enjoy their visit to our club and find here that companionable welcome and stimulating conversation that we believe is the hall-mark of this as of all good clubs.