The Athenaeum in Princess Street Manchester, England, now part of Manchester Art Gallery, was originally a club built for the Manchester Athenaeum, a society for the "advancement and diffusion of knowledge", in 1837. The society, founded in 1835, met in the adjacent Royal Manchester Institution until funds had been raised for the building. The society survived financial difficulties to become the centre for Manchester's literary life. It ceased operations in 1938.
In 2002, Manchester Art Gallery was extended by Hopkins Architects following an architectural design competition managed by RIBA Competitions to take in the Athenaeum. It is linked to the art gallery by a glass atrium. The Athenaeum is a grade II* listed building.
The Manchester Athenaeum for the Advancement and Diffusion of Knowledge was founded in 1835, with James Heywood as its first president. It met initially at the Royal Manchester Institution until funds had been raised for its own building, which was completed in 1837. Their new premises had a newsroom on the ground floor, and a library, lecture hall and coffee room. A billiards room and gymnasium were added later.
Richard Cobden was instrumental in promoting education in the city and spoke at the opening. He, along with a significant number of other members of the Anti-Corn Law League's Council, was an important figure in both instigating and developing the society during its early years. He described it as a "manufactory for working up the raw intelligence of the town".
By 1838, there were over 1,000 members, each paying an annual subscription of 30 shillings. The club then hit upon and survived financial difficulties to become the centre for Manchester's literary life. A report about the society in the Sheffield Times in 1847 noted that it catered for the "mental and moral improvement" of the intelligent among the middle-classes and that the shared pursuit of "rational amusement" was an aid to bridging the social gap between masters and men. That report, and thus the society, directly inspired two societies with similar goals in Sheffield, confusingly both calling themselves the Sheffield Athenaeum.
The society was promoted as "an institution for the benefit of the tradesmen, commercial assistants and apprentices, professional students, clerks, of this very populous and flourishing town". It also emphasised its admission of women, although in practice until 1844 they had limited membership rights, being barred from full engagement in its activities and from its management. Charles Dickens and Benjamin Disraeli addressed its membership in the 1840s.
The building is constructed of sandstone ashlar under a slate roof on a rectangular plan and originally had two storeys and a basement. It has a symmetrical nine-window facade with raised rusticated quoins at the corners and an inscribed frieze under a prominent mutuled cornice. The inscriptions on the frieze are, "INSTUTVTED MDCCCXXXV ATHENAEUM ERECTED MDCCCXXXVIII" and "FOR THE ADVANCEMENT AND DIFFVSION OF KNOWLEDGE". The building's interior was damaged by fire in 1874 and was remodelled and an attic floor was added behind a high balustraded parapet with four tall chimneys.
A central entrance porch with a coffered barrel-vaulted ceiling is accessed by a flight of stone steps and has Doric columns supporting a frieze, moulded cornice and balustraded parapet. The first and second floors have tall two-light casement windows with architraves, balustrades and pediments to the second floor.
- Grade II* listed buildings in Greater Manchester
- Listed buildings in Manchester-M1
- List of societies for education in Manchester
- Manchester Art Gallery, Royal Institute of British Architects, retrieved 1 May 2012
- Manchester Art Gallery Case Study (PDF), Royal Institute of British Architects, archived from the original (pdf) on 14 December 2013, retrieved 2 May 2012
- Historic England, "The Athenaeum 81 Princess Street (1270889)", National Heritage List for England, retrieved 1 May 2012
- Milner 2013, p. 74
- White, Alan (1990). "Class, culture and control: the Sheffield Athenaeum movement and the middle class 1847-64". In Wolff, Janet; Seed, John. The Culture of Capital: Art, Power and the Nineteenth-Century Middle Class. Manchester University Press. p. 88. ISBN 978-0-71902-461-0.
- The Athenaeum, Princess Street, Manchester, Greater Manchester, English Heritage, retrieved 1 May 2012
- Frangopulo 1977, p. 104
- Pickering & Tyrell 2000, p. 226
- Gleadle 1998, p. 147
- Hartwell 2001, p. 90
- Frangopulo, Nicholas Joseph (1977), Tradition in action: the historical evolution of the Greater Manchester County, EP Publishing, ISBN 0-7158-1203-3
- Gleadle, Kathryn (1998) , The Early Feminists: Radical Unitarians and the Emergence of the Women's Rights Movement, 1831-51 (Reprinted ed.), St Martin's Press, ISBN 978-1-34926-582-4
- Hartwell, Clare (2001), Manchester, Pevsner Architectural Guides, Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-09666-6
- Milner, Stephen J. (2013), "Manufacturing the Renaissance: modern merchant princes and the origins of the Manchester Dante Society", in Wolff, Janet; Savage, Mike, Culture in Manchester: Institutions and Urban Change since 1850, Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-1-52610-209-6
- Pickering, Paul; Tyrell, Alex (2000), The People's Bread: A History of the Anti-Corn Law League, Bloomsbury Publishing, ISBN 978-0-56720-497-4