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Music, Saurians and Colored Fire at the Crystal Palace

by Tori V. Martínez

Chances are, most visitors to London are under the mistaken impression that the city's iconic Crystal Palace is a place to be found only in history books, not on the tourist routes. That is, of course, if they've actually even heard of the Crystal Palace.

Crystal Palace

Even for those in the know, the unique glass and iron structure is most often associated with the building in Hyde Park that housed the Great Exhibition of 1851, the first World's Fair. But that incarnation lasted just six months -- a mere pittance compared to the 82 years it stood in southeast London where it served as the city's hub of culture and entertainment. And although it burned to the ground in 1936, both the spirit and numerous physical reminders of the Crystal Palace can still be found just a short journey outside central London.

The World in London

On June 10, 1854, Queen Victoria dedicated the new Crystal Palace in Sydenham, just as she had done for the original Crystal Palace in Hyde Park only three years earlier. A more perfect spot could not have been chosen to do justice to the very successful original exhibition building. At 380 feet above sea level, the location is the highest point in southeast London. The completed building was so prominent that it could be seen from Hampstead Heath some 12 miles away.

Crystal Palace

Although the original structure designed by Joseph Paxton was theoretically disassembled in Hyde Park and reassembled in Sydenham, the new version had actually been significantly altered and expanded by Paxton himself. Half again as big as the original, the new five story building boasted 843,656 square feet of floor space and was comprised of around 1,600,000 square feet of glass. The Sydenham Crystal Palace, announced The Times in London, had "transcended the original."

But there was more to the new Crystal Palace than just the building. According to the 1970 book, The Crystal Palace, the original purpose of the park and building was to provide "Londoners the opportunity to expand their knowledge of the world while relaxing in lovely surroundings." To meet this end, the inside of the Crystal Palace displayed the best elements of world culture and history alongside all the greatness and wealth of the British Empire. Outside, the early highlight of the sprawling park was a system of "Grand Waterworks" designed by Paxton to rival those at Versailles and featuring two main jets that shot water up around 280 feet high.

An American author, Maria Susanna Cummins, visited the Crystal Palace in 1860 and described it in a letter to her mother:

You must imagine an immense & beautiful glass structure covering fifty times the space of any building you ever saw -- an approach through a terraced garden with temples, vases, fountains & sculptures in stone & marble.

Every country & climate, every thing, almost in the world, is represented in these different alcoves. Now you are in the Alhambra, now in Nineva, now in Australia, life-like figures, ancient sculptures & architectures, strange animals (stuffed -- or moulded to life) & flowers & plants appropriate to each land help out the illusion."

Crystal Palace

Plenty of others were equally impressed. Between 1854 and 1886, almost 60 million visitors toured the Crystal Palace. Considering its popularity, it's not surprising that many historic "firsts" took place there over the years. The earliest of these was the world's first "theme park," which opened in 1854 and consisted of life-sized models of dinosaurs set on islands surrounded by appropriate vegetation and geological illustrations. In 1902, an amusement park with water rides and a looping rollercoaster called the Topsy-Turvy was added. A much darker first was attributed to the Crystal Palace on August 17, 1896 -- the world's first motor vehicle death. Bridget Driscoll, 44, was killed on the grounds of the Crystal Palace when a car offering demonstration rides to the public hit her while traveling just 4 miles per hour.

Visitation waned by the early 20th century, but the Crystal Palace still had tremendous draw and was constantly being adapted and reinvented in various ways. In 1905, the Crystal Palace Football Club was founded there and was based at the park until 1915. Another great exhibition, the Festival of Empire Exhibition, was held at the Crystal Palace in 1911. During World War I, the site was used for naval training, and when it was reopened to the public in 1920, it housed the Imperial War Museum until 1923.

Crystal Palace

Despite or because of the many transitions, the Crystal Palace never ceased to inspire a sense of awe. Even 70 and 80 years after its creation, it was still heralded as a modern marvel, as when an American newspaper enthusiastically reported in 1927 that "the Crystal Palace, one of the largest amusement halls in the world, is famous for its roof with 25 acres of glass."

Unfortunately, there were definite signs that the Crystal Palace was being neglected, even in its early days, starting with Paxton's grand waterworks falling into disuse and disrepair. More critically, fire became a persistent threat as small blazes caused by discarded cigarette butts were regularly put out on the site. In December 1866, a larger fire destroyed a portion of the building known as the north transept, which was never rebuilt. In the 1920s, at least two more fires damaged part of the Theatre and portions of the south wing. But these were all minor in comparison with the conflagration that finally destroyed the Crystal Palace on the night of November 30, 1936.

Contemporary accounts describe how the red glow of the fire was so strong that it could be seen some 50 miles away in Brighton. When the fire caused the central transept to collapse, the sound could be heard five miles away. It took 438 firemen to fight the blaze, albeit unsuccessfully, and 749 policemen to protect the massive crowds -- estimated between 100,000 and 500,000 people -- that gathered to watch the fire.

Local residents still pass down stories of molten glass collecting in pools around the burning structure. A modern account confirms these stories and describes the scene:

The massive iron skeleton shimmered in the searing heat and pools of molten glass filled the famous historic courts. Goldfish, which had once graced the ornamental ponds, were reported by The Times as 'missing -- believed boiled'. Whole panes of glass were blown out of the roof by the updraught only to come crashing down again in nearby streets. Vivid tongues of yellow flame leaped 200 feet into the night sky."

By first light on December 1st, very little of the great Crystal Palace remained.

Beyond Iron and Glass

In a letter to the editor appearing in The Times on December 4, 1936, a local resident recalled: "I remember [the Crystal Palace] as the music centre of London; the exquisite beauty revealed there in coloured fire can never be forgotten; to roam among the Saurians was a delightful reminder of days when food was plentiful upon the earth and the beasts could indulge their appetites."

Crystal Palace

Although the iron and glass of the Crystal Palace are long gone, the Crystal Palace Park is once again a music center of London and still retains many original and recreated features and elements, including the "Saurians" (dinosaurs) and "coloured fire" (fireworks) lamented as forever lost 70 years ago. In 2003, the original dinosaur park was reopened to the public after a £4 million restoration. And the modern fireworks displays that take place regularly in the park echo the famous Brock's fireworks displays that ran from 1865 until 1936.

Other remnants of the Palace are the original Italianate terraces featuring a few of the original Classical-style statues, two stone Sphinxes, the original boating lake, and a recreation of the original maze that opened in 1870. Evidence of the Crystal Palace can even be found in the homes that still surround the site. At the Melrose House Bed and Breakfast in nearby Penge, an urn exactly matching one displayed in the original Exhibition catalog graces the garden of the Victorian house.

Crystal PalaceModern additions to the Crystal Palace Park include the 722 foot high television tower built in 1957, and The Crystal Palace National Sports Centre, which was built in the park in the 1960s and is used for a variety of sports training and events. The park is also home to a number of other attractions, including a farmers market, an annual summer "Victorian Weekend," and an ice rink in December and early January. The Crystal Palace Museum is housed in the former Crystal Palace School of Engineering building, which was founded in 1872.

A giant marble bust of Sir Joseph Paxton by W.F. Woodington, originally unveiled in 1873, still graces the park, although -- strangely -- it was repositioned in more recent times to face the sports center rather than the former site of the Crystal Palace. Not far from Crystal Palace Park, near the Caravan Club campground is a blue plaque that marks the former location of Rockhills, the home of Paxton from 1852 until his death there on June 8, 1865.

From a historical standpoint, the Sydenham Crystal Palace still attracts tremendous interest. In 2004, 47 photographs of the interior and exterior of the building taken in the late 1850s were purchased by English Heritage for £13,500 -- nearly three times more than expected. It has also been of architectural interest as far away as Dallas, Texas, where it inspired the creation of the seven-story, 1.6 million square foot INFOMART. Built in 1985 as a high-tech business and market center, the INFOMART's early promotional materials boasted that the British Parliament had recognized the structure "as the official successor to the Crystal Palace."

Back in London, the many reminders of the Sydenham Crystal Palace are an easy 15 minutes train journey from Central London. Modern day visitors can even travel to the site of the Crystal Palace from Victoria Station or London Bridge Station and arrive at the same low level railway station that was originally opened in 1854.

More Information:

The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace: Computer models

The Crystal Palace (Wikipedia)

Tori V. Martínez is a writer and freelance public relations professional who spends as much time as possible researching and writing on her favorite subject -- history. Several years ago, Tori eschewed the life of a full-time career woman to travel and live around the world, particularly in Britain, where she spent considerable time exploring and researching historic destinations. At the moment, she is living in the US with her husband -- a Spaniard she met in England -- and is happily writing for a variety of online and print publications. For more about Tori, visit http://www.globetrottingbroad.com.
Article © 2006 Tori V. Martínez Dinosaur photos by Colin Gregory Palmer, courtesy of Wikipedia.org


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