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London, England

Ruins of the Crystal Palace

The remains of Crystal Palace Great Exhibition of 1851 

It is difficult to imagine the enormous glass masterpiece of Victorian engineering that once stood on this spot. Few traces remain - just a few stairwells guarded by old sphinx, and some foundation stones. However, now new plans are underway, exploring the possibility of a new Crystal Palace rising again.

In 1936 a great fire lit the London horizon, but the efforts of 381 firemen with 89 engines were not enough to stop the blaze. Arson or accident, it was destroyed beyond saving.

The Crystal Palace was originally built to house the Great London Exhibition of 1851, a World’s Fair type expo highlighting the wonders of technology and arts of England’s far flung empire. The engineer Joseph Paxton was inspired by the underlying structure of the giant water lily to create ever larger conservatory buildings, culminating in the design of the spectacularly large exhibition hall, which he designed in just 10 days (his original sketch is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum).

Taking advantage of new modular design innovations, the 108ft tall, 1,848ft x 408ft building was able to be assembled in record time. A newly constructed railroad brought the tons of timber and iron, and 10 million feet of glass to the original Hyde Park location, where the exposition opened on May 1, 1851, just a little over nine months from initial design.

It was an intentionally elaborate and showy building, and became famous almost immediately.

It was however not universally loved. “August Welby Pugin, a proponent of Gothic architecture, called it a “glass-monster” and even told Paxton “You had better keep to building greenhouses, and I will keep to my churches and cathedrals”(Harrison). Thomas Carlyle called it a “big glass soap bubble”, and John Ruskin a “conservatory”.” (The Demolition of the Crystal Palace, 1936-1941, By Manpreet Singh)

Although it was originally intended only as a temporary structure, in 1854 after the close of the exhibition, it was moved to a permanent location at Sydenham in South-East London where it was surrounded by elaborate gardens, and became home to an eclectic assortment of attractions intended to draw back the crowds. Two new 280ft tall water towers designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel powered fountains which launched jets of water 120ft in the air. The Dinosaur Court sculpture garden showed off recently discovered prehistoric beasts was added on the grounds - now a protected landmark still visible today.

In 1866 the first of several fires struck, destroying the North transcept. A gigantic aquarium opened in place of the lost trancept in 1871, the largest in the world, hosting over 300 species and requiring 120,000 gallons of saltwater pumped in from Brighton. In the 1890s the fish were replaced by monkeys. Festivals and cricket matches were held on the grounds, along with roller coasters and hot air balloon rides.

But by the turn of the century, the Palace was losing money and declared bankruptcy in 1911. The fountains were turned off, and Brunel’s huge water towers emptied. So when the building caught fire in 1936, there was no water on hand to put out the blaze.

The towers made it through the fire, but were destroyed in WWII for fear that they were easy markers for German bombers. There are now plans to rebuild the water towers on site, reinvented as green technology with wind turbines.

Another organization formed in 2008 is dedicated to efforts to rebuild a 2/3 size Crystal Palace at Sydenham. The new plans call for a building that is an homage to the original, but with shops, a hotel, underground parking, an enormous waterfall, and something referred to as “Hanging Gardens” included in the design. The grounds would be updated with sporting fields, RV parking, and other modern attractions.

It is unclear whether the plans have moved beyond mere suggestion, however.

Know Before You Go

The remains of Crystal Palace aquarium are located at the end of Old Cople Lane.

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