A large building constructed of glass and iron that used to stand in London, England. It was the site of many national-level events and exhibits.

National Exhibition Centre Required

When the Great Exhibition of 1851 was being planned, they realised they needed somewhere special to put it. It was to be an international event, with countries putting their industrial achievements and national pride on display (It was actually a rather cynical ploy by Great Britain to show how superior to the rest of the world it believed itself to be, by showing its progress under the impetus of the industrial revolution against that of other, "less civilised" countries; but let's save that for another node).

This event would require rather a lot of space. The original intention was to host the event at Somerset House, but the committee in charge of organising it quickly realised that the venue would be far from adequate and that a specialised building should be constructed. The committee, led by Henry Cole and whose members included Sir William Cubitt, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Barry and Robert Stephenson, organised a competition to decide on a building design after selecting a 22-acre site on the southern end of Hyde Park. The winner was to be a majestic construction - as impressive as the exhibition it would host. Almost 250 design entries were received but a consensus on the winner could not be reached, mainly because none of them could be reliably produced on time or on a reasonable budget.

So, in the spirit of arrogance that typified the whole venture, the committee discarded the lot and decided to design it themselves. They did so. Once complete and widely circulated throughout the press, the consensus was almost unanimous: the design was awful. Publicly-heaped derision almost resulted in the whole project being cancelled. Less than a year remained until the scheduled opening of the fair and organisers were desperate. At this stage they presumably added ease and speed of construction to their design requirements.

Joseph Paxton

The head gardener of the Duke of Devonshire's estate at Chatsworth learnt of these problems the same way the majority of the public had done. Joseph Paxton was a well-regarded gardener, published several times, who had turned down an offer to be the Royal Gardener to continue work at Chatsworth. He had spent some years experimenting with designs in glass houses, culminating in the Great Palm Stove and the Lily House (created to enclose the Victoria Regent giant lily, which he cultivated himself).

During a visit to the Parliament buildings (still under construction at the time) with a railway director friend of his, the two were discussing problems with the Charles Barry Building design when Paxton mentioned the more severe problems he believed existed with the proposed Great Exhibition venue. He said he would like to be able to submit his own design if there was time left. His director friend (named only "Ellis" in source material) then took him to the Board of Trade (as you do) to discuss the matter with Cole, who just so happened to be there.

After about two weeks of discussions, Paxton agreed to deliver a design that would be easy to build and more importantly, temporary: the committee had agreed prior to this that the land on Hyde Park should be returned to its original state once the fair was over (this was another reason for the rejection of the prior designs - the vast majority of them were built from permanent materials that would be problematic and time-consuming to remove). Paxton took the opportunity to develop a previous work of his, presenting a finished design after ten days. He created a design based his Lily House construction but much, much bigger.

Exhibition Building Design #251

There seems to be no record of what the Paxton's design was called before Punch magazine coined the name "Crystal Palace" in 1850, but the design was not originally the same as any of the pictorial records show it. To begin with the most ambitious design of Victorian times was fairly regular, unremarkable (in retrospect, obviously) save for the materials used in its construction - glass, wrought iron, cast iron and wood. The core component was a rectangular enclosure, 456ft by 1,848ft, with tiered sides. The top two tiers would each be slightly shorter than the one below.

On publication of the design there was much support and appreciation for it, save for some consternation on the part of some Londoners who were opposed to the felling of three 90-foot tall elm trees that grew on the proposed site. This resulted in an interesting twist to the design, as it was it was too small to fit the trees inside at first. So, after assuring the public that the trees would be unharmed, Paxton got the builders, Messrs Fox & Henderson, to alter the design of the building to enclose them:

"The design of the palace has been altered so that a magnificent arched transept now covers the trees. The transept will do nothing to the structure of the building except preserve the trees and add magnificence to the palace."

Originally 62¼ft tall, the revised building design now included a barrel vaulted transept 108ft high to completely enclose all of the elm trees. A fortuitous turn of events, because it probably would have looked quite boring otherwise.

Construction of the building took less than six months, beginning in September 1850 and completing in January 1851, ready for the fair's opening on mayday. The finished construction was an enclosure of 300,000 panes of glass totalling almost one million square feet of coverage, framed by 9,642 tons of ironwork. The Great Exhibition was a tremendous success, due at least in part to how impressed people were with Crystal Palace itself.

Crystal Palace Grows

It wasn't without its detractors of course - once the exhibition was over, those opposed to the fair in the planning stages strongly pushed to have it removed as per the original agreement. Seeing the affection many London citizens had for the building, Paxton tried his utmost to keep it open as a Winter Garden and park and was able to get a stay of dismantling until May 1852, when Fox & Henderson were ordered to take down the building and began looking for takers for several thousand tons of glass and scrap metal.

Paxton saw this coming, having battled the same people to be allowed to construct Crystal Palace in the first place. During the debate to keep it standing he set up a company - the Crystal Palace Company - to raise enough funds to purchase the building themselves. After the die had been cast on Crystal Palace's future as a Hyde Park feature, the company directors (including several of the organisers of the Great Exhibition) raised £25 million (adjusted) between them to buy the structure and rebuild it on another site.

The new site was considerably bigger than the old one - the CPC chose a 389-acre site on Sydenham Hill in south-east London. The building itself was also much bigger than the original. Paxton took the opportunity for a redesign, producing a far more intricate and impressive construction on his new site. Crystal Palace v2 was enlarged in all directions. The central transept was taller, there were five tiers compared to the original three, the building was longer, taller, wider and incorporated one smaller transept on either side. At each end, further enclosures extended forwards from the rest of the building towards the terraces that bisected the grounds.

The area surrounding the park was extensively landscaped and in keeping with Paxton's love for water, incorporated many water features. The most prominent of these were two lakes opposite the two "small" transepts, each of which had gigantic matching fountains, each able to propel water over 250ft into the air. The fountains spread over the rest of the site had almost 12,000 individual jets between them. These were served by two water towers, one at either end of the Crystal Palace building. These stored water drawn from three lakes in the park. This seems to be the only area of design misjudgement, as the first towers to be built collapsed when filled with water. Redesigned, these water towers when completed were even larger than the building's central transept, at around 280ft tall.

Development of the park surrounding Crystal Palace cost considerably more than the reconstruction of the building itself; moreover, it was far too expensive to run the fountains regularly as one "display" required over 7 million gallons of water. They were only used on special occasions.

A National Attraction

Crystal Palace - becoming known as the "Palace of the People" - was host to a great many events and exhibitions, from music festivals and concerts to athletics, motor racing (staged on the paths in the park) and even the 'Grand International Show of Poultry and Pigeons'. A company even located itself within the building, and the south water tower was used as a mast for Britain's first ever colour television broadcast.

Unfortunately the crushing debt accrued by the CPC during the construction (the initial investment from the directors was exhausted before the building was even half-finished) and circumstances resulting in considerable revenue loss - it never opened on Sunday due to order from the Lords Day Observance Lobby - meant that Crystal Palace was never really able to sustain itself. The Festival of Empire, probably the most extravagant event held at Crystal Palace, failed to attract sufficient revenue and it was declared bankrupt in September of that year.

Crystal Palace was saved, again, when the Earl of Plymouth was able to action the repurchasing of it by the state. Under this new ownership it continued to less dignifying notoriousness, not least falling into considerable disrepair during the two years it took to determine its future. Returned to a reasonable state, it was acquired during the war by the Admiralty of the Royal Navy to use as a major recruiting and training centre for Navy volunteers. Afterwards, it became the first Imperial War Museum and several of the original attractions resumed, including Brocks' firework displays which originated from summer Thursdays during its heyday.

"the end of an age"

On the night of November 30th 1936, over 500 firemen and 90 fire engines arrived at Crystal Palace. Unfortunately, that was because it was on fire. Hours of collective attempts by all were not enough and the building was almost completely gutted. Only part of one end and the water towers remained. The cause remains unknown.

The insurance was insufficient for Crystal Palace to be rebuilt and many apparently said it shouldn't be anyway, because the values it represented were outdated. After two years the water towers had to be removed too, as they were a very handy guide for German bombers during WWII (though the whole site and surrounding areas were heavily bombed anyway). The site became a dumping ground for rubble from destroyed buildings and remains derelict (though cleared of debris) today.

Nothing physically remains of the "transparent humbug" (as one of its fiercest naysayers pronounced it) itself but some of the surrounding park survived the fire and subsequent dismantling process and parts are open to the public. The base of one of the water towers still stands, as do parts of the water features (although just one fountain basin remains out of the thousands installed), an abandoned cave and a very overgrown maze.

It is worth noting that many of the most important events at Crystal Palace took place in the grounds so it is a blessing that they survived in part - indeed, they remain a Grade 2 listed historical park. All proposals to build anything at all on the site have generally been met with considerable public criticism and subsequently abandoned; the future of the area remains uncertain.

In some areas, mainly statistics, sources disagree a bit. If you know different to what I've written, please /msg me and a correction shall follow.

Sources/Further Reading:

  • The Crystal Palace Foundation; "The Crystal Palace Foundation;
  • chrisl@aaa.uoregon.edu; "The Crystal Palace of Hyde Park";
  • Heritage Image Partnership; "Paxton and The Palace";
  • (Author unknown); "CRYSTAL PALACE - The pre war years 1927-1939";
  • Paxton, Sir Joseph: "Defending The Design of the Crystal Palace";
  • CommuniGate; "The Crystal Palace";
  • (Author unknown); "The Great Exhibition";
  • me@arthurlloyd.co.uk; "The Crystal Palace";
  • Wikipedia (various authors); "Crystal Palace";
  • The Valuer, October 1988; "History of the Crystal Palace";
  • (Author unknown); "The spectacular nineteenth-century Crystal Palace";
  • Victorian Station; "The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace";
  • Bhat, Prof. Vikram; "Record keeper Henry Cole, Queen Victoria's husband Prince Albert, and the Duke of Devonshire's gardener, Joseph Paxton";

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