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Crystal Palace, site of (Sydenham)
Sydenham Hill, Crystal Palace, London, UK
Crystal Palace, site of (Sydenham)
associated engineer
Sir Joseph Paxton
Sir William Cubitt
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
date  5th August 1952 - 10th June 1854
era  Victorian  |  category  Building  |  reference  TQ339710
ICE reference number  HEW 305b
photo  Philip Henry Delamotte (1821–1889) (Smithsonian Libraries) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The second version of the Crystal Palace was constructed from the components of the spectacular original erected in London's Hyde Park in 1851. It was built to house the Great Exhibition, and later dismantled and rebuilt to a different design on Sydenham Hill in south London. The second Crystal Palace burned down in 1936 but the local district still bears its name.
The original Crystal Palace, Hyde Park was realised by its architect Joseph Paxton (1803-65) and the Exhibition Commissioners' chief engineer William Cubitt (1785-1861). The cast iron, glass and timber structure’s modular design followed a 7.3m square grid. It was built by contractor Fox, Henderson & Co, with state-of-the-art glazing manufactured by Chance Brothers & Co.
The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations closed on 15th October 1851 and Parliamentary agreed on 29th April 1852 to its removal. Paxton was instrumental in the setting up of the Crystal Palace Company to buy, dismantle and rebuild the structure.
In May 1852, the Crystal Palace Company was established by royal charter. Its chairman was Samuel Laing (1812-97), who was also chairman of the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway (LB&SCR). The directors included Paxton, Arthur Anderson (1792-1868), Francis Fuller (1807-87), Charles Geach (1808-54), John Scott Russell (1808-82), Owen Jones (1809-74), Charles Manners Lushington (1819-64), Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820-77), Thomas Newman Farquhar and Edmund Sexton Pery Calvert.
The company raised £500,000 to finance the project. In May 1852, it bought the building, owned at the time by the contractor, for £70,000. The dismantled structure was transported to Sydenham Hill, where the company had acquired 80.9 hectares of the Penge Place estate, owned by Leo (Leopold) Schuster (1791-1871), a fellow director of the LB&SCR. Initially the company purchased 141.2 hectares and the mansion for £167,661 but sold 60.3 hectares to a business associate of Paxton’s for £100,000.
Paxton, who lived nearby in a large house called Rockhills (TQ339714), supervised the rebuilding and the landscaping of its surroundings. The reconfigured Crystal Palace was in the Beaux Arts style and occupied a greater volume than the original, requiring considerable quantities of extra building materials. Though reminiscent of the first, the design of the second glasshouse differed sufficiently to be considered a new structure.
The Sydenham building was five storey (the Hyde Park version was three). Its footprint was smaller at 490.1m long by 95.1m wide, stepping out to a maximum width of 117m. However, it had not one but three barrel vaulted transepts: at the ends (north and south) of the main gallery and a much larger one in the centre, reaching to a height of 51.2m. The longitudinal nave above the gallery was also enclosed by semicircular glazing and, like the minor transepts, was 31.7m high.
The total floor area was 78,376 sq m — 55,591 sq m at ground level and 22,785 sq m for the galleries. The glazing covered 153,285 sq m, using about 83 percent more glass than the earlier building.
On 5th August 1852, Laing presided over the erection of the first column of Crystal Palace at Sydenham. On 15th August 1853, centring supporting the transept collapsed, killing 12 construction workers. The project soon consumed the money raised and the final expenditure was around £1.35m. Despite planning the opening for 1st May 1854, completion was delayed. Queen Victoria opened the building on 10th June instead.
The palace was situated on the west side of the site, adjacent to a new road (now called Crystal Palace Parade). The building was divided into 'courts' exhibiting Grecian, Roman, Greco-Roman, Egyptian, Chinese, Moorish, Medieval and Renaissance arts. It also held collections of palm trees, ferns and tropical fruit trees. The grounds in front (east) included upper and lower terraces, gardens, cascades and fountains. A grand central walk, 811m long and 29.3m wide linked the palace with the Penge entrance to the park.
Paxton's protégé Edward Milner (1819-84) designed the Italian garden, the great maze and the English landscape garden. Raffaele Monti (1818-81) was responsible for much of the statuary. Victorian sensibilities dictated that the nude statues had to be draped or furnished with strategically placed stone fig leaves. Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-94) sculpted the world's first life-size models of "dinosaurs", working with anatomical information from palaeontologist Richard Owen (1804-92, knighted 1883). Around 30 individuals, depicting at least 14 different types, were cast in concrete and placed around the lower lake and its islands.
The elaborate fountains contained a total of 11,788 jets, requiring around 545,520 litres of water per minute — about 32 million litres for one display — and were used only for special occasions. An inaugural display was held in 1855, with Queen Victoria in attendance.
High-pressure water for the jets was provided by the installation of tanks in water towers fed by three on-site reservoirs. Designed by Charles Heard Wild (d.1857), they were of brick. However, they collapsed under the weight of water in the tanks.
After that, Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59) designed a pair of water towers to replace them. His twin ten-storey towers, one at each end of the building, were 14m in diameter and 86m tall, of ferro-concrete with wrought iron stiffening diaphragms. The water was held in large diameter drums at the top of the towers under conical roofs. They were completed after Crystal Palace opened.
Two railway stations served the site. Low Level Station (TQ345702) to the south dates from 1854, and was built for the LB&SCR. It was modified in 1875-7, refurbished in 1979 and in 1986 was renamed Crystal Palace Station. High Level Station, opened in 1865 on the west side, serving the London, Chatham & Dover Railway. This station closed in 1954 and was demolished in the early 1960s, though the retaining wall for the station approach, part of a pedestrian subway and two rail tunnels are extant.
In 1857, a 4,000 seat concert hall, with an organ, was constructed at the intersection of the palace's central transept and nave. In June 1861, acrobat and daredevil Charles Blondin (Jean François Gravelet, 1824-97) traversed a high rope across the central transept. In 12 assorted performances he pulled his five-year-old daughter in a wheelbarrow, cooked an omelette, turned somersaults and walked on stilts. From July 1865, fireworks displays were held every Thursday night until 1935 (except during 1910-20). In January 1868, the palace hosted the first public screening of moving pictures to a large audience using a Zoetrope projector powered by a gas engine.
The second Crystal Palace was beset by misfortune and disaster. Its investors struggled to recoup the construction cost or make a profit. In February 1861, the building was damaged in a gale. On 30th December 1866, a fire destroyed the north wing of the nave and the north transept. The nave was rebuilt in two years but for lack of money the north transept was never reconstructed.
By 1890, extensive repairs were required as a result of problems with Paxton’s guttering system. The two largest fountains were disused and their basins infilled. The area of the north basin became a cycle track and the south a football stadium, hosting the FA Cup Finals from 1895 to 1914.
In 1909, the Crystal Palace Company went into receivership and applied to the High Court to be wound up (27th May). The building was due to be sold at auction on 28th November 1911. Before that could happen, the Crystal Palace was the venue for the Festival of Empire, held to celebrate the coronation of King George V and Queen Mary (22nd June). The auction was forestalled as on 9th November, Robert George Windsor-Clive (1857-1923, 1st Earl of Plymouth) provided a £20,000 deposit for its purchase. Nine days later he signed a private sale contract to pay a further £210,000.
To relieve Lord Plymouth of the financial burden, a public subscription fund was set up and in 1913 the building became the property of the nation. On 1st May 1914, the Crystal Palace Act received royal assent, incorporating a board of trustees to run the palace and its park "as a place for education and recreation and for the promotion of industry commerce and art". The board was controlled by the Ministry of Education and included 23 local authority representatives, six of them nominated by London County Council. The trustees hired Henry James Buckland (1870-1957) as manager.
During World War I (1914-8), the palace was used as a Royal Navy shore station and barracks — HMS Victory. In June 1920, it re-opened to the public and housed the Imperial War Museum. The building seems to have been vulnerable to fire, and blazes in 1911, 1920 and 1923 caused localised damage. Worse was to come.
About 7.30pm on Monday 30th November 1936, a small fire was discovered in a lavatory near the main entrance. The flames spread rapidly, fanned by the wind, before Penge fire brigade arrived soon after 8pm. Reportedly visible from 10 counties, the inferno drew a large crowd of onlookers including Winston Churchill (1874-1965).
The cause of London’s biggest 20th century peacetime fire was never established, though theories abounded. In all, 88 appliances and 438 fire fighters from four brigades battled the blaze without success, with 749 police officers on duty. By the morning of Tuesday 1st December, the building had been completed destroyed but Brunel’s water towers were saved.
Buckland commented, "In a few hours we have seen the end of the Crystal Palace. Yet it will live in the memories not only of Englishmen, but the whole world". By 1937, most of the ironwork had been removed by scrap merchants W. Ward & Co.
The south tower played an important role in the development of independent television. From July 1933, John Logie Baird (1888-1946) and Baird Television Limited had been carrying out transmission experiments in and around the south tower. The company provided the only UK television broadcasts between 12th September 1935 and 2nd November 1936, at which point the BBC began transmitting from Alexandra Palace in North London. The Sydenham fire consumed Baird's studios in the south transept and, on 16th December 1936, the Television Advisory Committee abandoned his 240-line system in favour of the Marconi-EMI 405-line system.
It was thought likely that the water towers would provide landmarks for enemy aircraft in World War II (1939-45). During the winter of 1940-1, the south tower was dismantled in sections. Dynamite wasn't used owing to its proximity to the road and houses on Anerley Hill. The north tower was demolished by explosives on 16th April 1941.
Fire struck again on 24th October 1950, destroying the remains of the palace’s south wing and the nearby School of Art.
In the mid-1950s, a new television mast was constructed on the site of the north tower. It took over from the transmitter at Alexandra Palace, broadcasting from 28th March 1956, and was commissioned formally on 21st December 1957. It was the first in the UK to use 625-line television (1964) and the first in the world to transmit stereophonic digital sound (18th July 1986).
In September 1972, the remains of the High Level Station subway were Grade II listed. In June 1973, the Low Level Station was given the same listing. Most of the dinosaur models still stand around the lower lake and have been refurbished. They were first listed in June 1973, with the citation increased to Grade I in August 2007.
In 1983-4, the terraces, pathways, fountain basins, steps, orangery and Crystal Palace Parade boundary were restored to their original appearance. A new viewing platform was constructed. The work cost around £3m and enabled safe public access to 5.9 hectares of open space. In October 1987, the Crystal Palace site and park were Grade II* listed.
In July 2000, the gates of Rockhills were Grade II listed. They are reputed to have been given to Paxton by Queen Victoria. Paxton lived at Rockhills in 1852-65 and Buckland in 1922-56. The house no longer stands.
Architect: Joseph Paxton
Ironwork: Fox Henderson & Co
Glazing: Chance Brothers & Co, Smethwick
Research: ECPK
"The Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition" by Hermoine Hobhouse, Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, Continuum, London, 2002
reference sources   CEH North

Crystal Palace, site of (Sydenham)