Waterhouse was particularly associated with the Victorian Gothic revival. He is perhaps best known for his design for the Natural History Museum in London, although he also built a wide variety of other buildings throughout the country. Financially speaking, Waterhouse was probably the most successful of all Victorian architects. Though expert within Gothic and Renaissance styles, Waterhouse never limited himself to a single architectural style. Waterhouse was born on the 19th July 1830 in Aigburth, Liverpool, the son of wealthy mill-owning Quaker parents. He was educated at the Quaker run Grove School in Tottenham near London. He studied architecture under Richard Lane in Manchester, and spent much of his youth travelling in Europe and studying in France, Italy and Germany. Upon his return to England, Alfred set up his own architectural practice in Manchester.
Waterhouse continued to practice in Manchester for 12 years, until moving his practice to London in 1865. Waterhouse’s earliest commissions were for domestic buildings, but his success as a designer of public buildings was assured in 1859 when he won the open competition for the Manchester Assize Courts. This work not only showed his ability to plan a complicated building on a large scale, but also marked him out as a champion of the Gothic cause. In 1865, Waterhouse was one of the architects selected to compete for the Royal Courts of Justice. The new University Club was undertaken in 1866. In 1868 and nine years after his work on the Manchester Assize Courts, another competition secured for Waterhouse the design of Manchester Town Hall, where he was able to show a firmer and more original handling of the Gothic style. The same year he was involved in rebuilding part of Caius College, Cambridge; this was not his first university work, for he had already worked on Balliol College, Oxford in 1867, and the new buildings of the Cambridge Union Society, in 1866.
Waterhouse received, without competition, the commission to build the Natural History Museum in South Kensington (1873-1881), a design which marks an epoch in the modern use of architectural terracotta and which was to become his best known work. Waterhouse’s other works in London included the National Liberal Club (a study in Renaissance composition), University College Hospital, the Surveyors’ Institution in London’s Great George Street (1896), and the Jenner Institute of Preventive Medicine in Chelsea (1895).
From the late 1860s, Waterhouse lived in the Reading area and was responsible for several significant buildings there. These included his own residences of Foxhill House (1868) and Yattendon Court (1877), together with Reading Town Hall (1875) and Reading School (1870). Foxhill House is still in use by the University of Reading, as are his Whiteknights House (built for his father) and East Thorpe House (built in 1880 for Alfred Palmer).
Other educational buildings designed by Waterhouse include Yorkshire College, Leeds (1878), the Victoria Building for the Liverpool University College (now University of Liverpool) (1885), St Paul’s School in Hammersmith (1881); and the Central Technical College in London’s Exhibition Road (1881).
Among works not already mentioned are the Cambridge Union building and subsequently a similar building for the Oxford Union; Strangeways Prison; St Margaret’s School in Bushey; the Metropole Hotel in Brighton; Hove Town Hall; Knutsford town hall; Alloa Town Hall; St. Elisabeth’s church in Reddish; Darlington town clock, covered market hall and Backhouse’s Bank (now Barclay’s Bank); the King’s Weigh House chapel in Mayfair, Hutton Hall in Yorkshire, St. Mary’s Church in Twyford, Hampshire (1878) shows interestingly similar patterning to the Natural History Museum and was designed at the same time.
Waterhouse became a fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1861, and was President from 1888 to 1891. He obtained a grand prix for architecture at the Paris Exposition of 1867, and a “Rappel” in 1878. In the same year he received the Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and was made an associate of the Royal Academy, of which body he became a full member in 1885 and treasurer in 1898. He was also a member of the academies of Vienna (1869), Brussels (1886), Antwerp (1887), Milan (1888) and Berlin (1889), and a corresponding member of the Institut de France (1893). After 1886 he was constantly called upon to act as assessor in architectural competitions, and was a member of the international jury appointed to adjudicate on the designs for the west front of Milan Cathedral in 1887. In 1890 he served as architectural member of the Royal Commission on the proposed enlargement of Westminster Abbey as a place of burial.