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Crystal Palace, site of (Hyde Park)
between Rotten Row and South Carriage Drive, Hyde Park, London, UK
Crystal Palace, site of (Hyde Park)
associated engineer
Sir Joseph Paxton
Sir William Cubitt
date  August 1850 - 1st May 1851
UK era  Victorian  |  category  Building  |  reference  TQ272799
ICE reference number  HEW 305a
photo  public domain
The huge Victorian exhibition hall of glass and iron known as the Crystal Palace was commissioned to house the Great Exhibition of 1851 — the first great World's Fair, and a celebration of industrial design and technology. It was located in London's Hyde Park but dismantled after the fair closed and re-erected in a different form (now demolished) on Sydenham Hill in South London.
The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations took place between 1st May and 15th October 1851, on a 10.5 hectare site between Rotten Row and South Carriage Drive, near Prince of Wales Gate. Funded by public subscription, it attracted more than six million visitors and raised a net profit of £186,437. The money was used to purchase land adjoining Hyde Park and develop the Royal Albert Hall, Imperial College and the South Kensington museums.
The building to house the planned thousands of exhibits from 32 nations was always intended to be temporary. The Building Committee of the government's Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 was charged with the selection of its designer. Renowned architects and engineers of the day among the committee’s membership included Charles Barry (1795-1860), Thomas Leverton Donaldson (1795-1885), Robert Stephenson (1803-59), Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-59), Charles Fox (1810-74) and Matthew Digby Wyatt (1820-77).
A design competition was set up that produced almost 250 schemes, none of which were felt to be satisfactory by the committee, which then came up with its own solution. However, Joseph Paxton (1803-65), designer of the Great Conservatory at Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, thought he could do better.
Paxton famously sketched his idea for a glasshouse design on a piece of blotting paper. He quickly established that the committee would accept alternatives and, with structural advice from William Henry Barlow (1812-1902), developed a workable scheme. He had it published just two weeks after the committee's own publicity, and design amendments followed. Paxton persuaded contractor Fox, Henderson & Co (a partnership between Fox and John Henderson [c1812-58] ) to submit a tender.
The glasshouse idea was brought to fruition by engineer William Cubitt (1785-1861), chairman of the Building Committee (in his capacity as president of the Institution of Civil Engineers) and its project manager.
However, the scheme would not have reached a successful conclusion without the vision and teamwork of all parties involved, particularly the contractors, who began the project at their own expense before the formal contract was signed on 31st October 1850. The ironwork contractor and eventual owner of the building was Fox, Henderson & Co. The plate glass was manufactured by Chance Brothers & Co at their works in Spon Lane, Smethwick, near Birmingham.
Paxton gave credit to Fox for his work, and Fox praised Barry for his "invaluable improvement in the architectural beauty of the building". Wyatt honoured Cubitt as the project’s "master mind" and described Fox and Henderson's expertise in translating design into reality, "… difficulties were foreseen and remedied — and a high order of mechanized contrivance was displayed, in adaptations of machinery to economise labour and to perfect production".
Paxton's building of cast iron, glass and timber stood on a basement above concrete foundations. Its rectangular footprint was bisected by an east-west nave and a north-south transept, both 21.9m wide and open to full height. The siting of the building enabled some of the park’s fully grown elm trees to be part of the display, as the transept was built around them. At the intersection of transept and nave stood an 8.2m fountain made from 4 tonnes of pink glass.
The ground floor of the glasshouse was 563.3m long and 124.4m wide, stepping out to 139m wide over part of the north side. The two cross-shaped upper storeys were also 563.3m long. The first floor was a maximum of 80.5m wide over the nave, stepping back in width on the second floor. The building held four longitudinal galleries and six transverse ones and had a roof 19.2m high. The transept was spanned by a semicircular arched roof 31.4m high, 21.9m wide and 124.4m long.
The structure’s modular design followed a 7.3m square grid, offering a cost effective solution for the erection of a large building in a short time. The size of the grid square was derived from a smaller sub-unit, governed by the largest panes of plate glass then manufactured — 1.244m long and 254mm wide. Identically shaped panes were employed for the majority of the glazing.
For the roof, Paxton used the ridge and furrow system of glazing he had pioneered at Chatsworth to assemble the glass panes into square units. A unit had three triangular prisms of glazing, 2.4m wide and 7.3m long, each with two angled panels. Every panel contained 28 panes of glass, the long sides joined by sash bars and the short sides connected to a ridge bar or a gutter (the furrow). The vaulted roof over the transept was framed with 16 cast iron main ribs and secondary timber ribs and sashes. All the guttering and glazing bars were of timber.
The roof units were carried on cast iron corner columns and braced by cast and wrought iron lattice frames. The hollow columns acted as downpipes for water flowing in the gutters, and also supported the upper galleries. All 3,300 of them were 203mm in diameter but of varying wall thickness, 9mm to 32mm, depending on the imposed loads. Ground floor columns were 5.8m high and second and third floor columns 5.2m, joined by 900mm vertical connecting pieces.
The vertical outer walls were divided into modules one tier high and 7.3m wide with three panels of glazing, approximately 2.3m wide and 4.3m high. On the ground floor, many of the glazing panels were replaced by timber boarding to provide wall space for the exhibits inside. The top of each wall module was fitted with a 900mm deep band of horizontal metal louvres, consisting of five overlapping S-shaped blades, operated by a gearing mechanism for ventilation. An additional 1.2m deep range of louvres encircled the basement of the building, which housed services and drainage pipework.
Solar gain was moderated by shrouding the flat ridge and furrow roofs with canvas or calico, which could be wetted to provide cooling by evaporation. Originally Paxton proposed to cover the south elevations too, though it seems not to have been done.
To keep the ground floor free of debris and promote air circulation, the floorboards were laid with gaps of about 10mm between them, above a basement space up to 1.5m deep. The galleries had close-boarded floors. The total area — ground floor plus galleries — was 91,960 sq m.
The glasshouse glazing covered 83,610 sq m. It was held in place by 330km of glazing bars and 38.6km of guttering. The building contained 3,861 tonnes of cast iron, including 2,224 principal girders, and 711 tonnes of wrought iron. Its timberwork was painted white, while the ironwork was coloured blue (vertical surfaces), yellow (curved surfaces) and red (horizontal surfaces).
Construction began in August 1850, and was completed some five months later. The total cost was around £143,000. The interior was fitted out and the displays installed in time for the grand opening by Queen Victoria on 1st May 1851. Crystal Palace, as it became known, also boasted the first major installation of public lavatories — 827,280 people paid the one penny fee to use them.
On 23rd August 1851, Cubitt, Paxton and Fox all received knighthoods for their efforts in the construction of Crystal Palace.
Though popular with royalty and the public, the building had some high-profile detractors, notably the controversial MP Colonel Charles de Laet Waldo Sibthorpe (1783-1855). He had objected vociferously to its construction and once the Great Exhibition was over campaigned for its removal, gaining Parliamentary agreement on 29th April 1852.
In May 1852, the Crystal Palace Company was established by royal charter. Its chairman was Samuel Laing (1812-97) and 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. They raised £500,000 to buy, relocate and rebuild the palace.
The company purchased the building for £70,000 from Fox, Henderson & Co. It was dismantled and its materials used to build a structure of different design on Sydenham Hill in south London. The site, conveniently close to many of the directors' residences, was part of the lands belonging to Penge Place, owned by Leo Schuster (1791-1871).
The directors acquired 80.9 hectares of the estate on which to re-erect the remodelled Crystal Palace, which opened on 10th June 1854. The new version was smaller in plan but taller, with a greater area of glass. Brunel designed two 86m water towers, one at each end of the building, containing water tanks to supply the fountains on the terraces.
Meanwhile, the contractors were allowed until 1st November 1852 to take down the Hyde Park building. Removing the foundations, drains and sewerage associated with it was not completed until 1854, after arbitration at the end of 1853, and the ground was reinstated by the Office of Works.
Architect: Joseph Paxton
Ironwork: Fox Henderson & Co
Glazing: Chance Brothers & Co, Smethwick
Research: ECPK
"The Crystal Palace, environmentally considered" by Henrik Schoenefeldt, Architectural Research Quarterly, 12 (3-4), pp.283-294, 2008
"The Crystal Palace and the Great Exhibition" by Hermoine Hobhouse, Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, Continuum, London, 2002
reference sources   CEH LondBDCE2

Crystal Palace, site of (Hyde Park)