Brighton Dome (1803 – 1808) was commissioned by the Prince of Wales (later King George IV) whose taste for flamboyant fashions, outlandish architecture and mistresses is well documented.
When visiting Brighton, the Prince was accustomed to staying at a small lodging house overlooking Old Steine. Additions and alterations to the lodging house eventually led the Prince to commission architect William Porden to draw up plans for a vast new stable block (Concert Hall) and riding house (Corn Exchange) for his horses. It replaced the original stables which were located south of what was to become the Marine Pavilion.
The project would take five years to complete at a staggering cost of £54,783 (a small fortune at the time), almost bankrupting the Prince in the process, and resulting in the King having to appeal to Parliament to clear his son’s debts.
The exterior of Brighton Dome was inspired by an aquatint of the great Jami Masjid (Friday Mosque) in Delhi, published by William and Thomas Daniell in Oriental Scenery, reflecting a prevalent interest in all things Indian at the time. The interior clearly owed a debt to the design of the Paris Corn Exchange, whose segmented glass ceiling was mirrored in the original dome construction. The Sussex Weekly Advertiser in 1806 records 61 stalls, 38 for hunters and other saddle horses and 23 for coach horses. The stables were a kind of Oriental answer to the Pantheon in Rome devoted to George's love of horsemanship.
A miraculous construction
The domed roof (80 feet in diameter, 65 feet high) was one of the largest constructions of its type in the world and many thought the structure would collapse once the scaffolding had been removed. William Porden wrote:
‘The cupola is now on, and the workmen are swarming about it like jackdaws. The whole proves fully equal to expectation. The dome now supports itself, without assistance from the scaffolding, and has not yet fallen.’
The dimensions of the riding house (178 feet by 58 feet, with a 34-foot-high unsupported roof) were equally ambitious, and significant delays were incurred in the search for sufficiently large single spans of roof timber.
Inevitably, given the project’s scale, the townspeople soon remarked that the Prince’s horses were housed more favourably than the Regent himself, spurring him on to transform his relatively modest Marine Pavilion into today's grand palace, the Royal Pavilion.
An underground passage, which still exists today, was built to run between the stables and the northern end of the Royal Pavilion. It is rumoured that the tunnel was built so that the Prince could sneak from the Palace to the stables to meet his mistress Maria Fitzherbert. However, George had fallen out with Mrs Fitzherbert by the time it was built.