What could have been more amazing than the creation of a building of colossal size, made entirely of plate glass and cast-iron? Even in this day and age it would have been a spectacle worth viewing but we are talking about the 1850s. This is exactly what was built in Hyde Park.
Designed by Joseph Paxton, the building some 41m high, with 71,794.0 m2 on the ground floor alone, was composed of the largest amount of glass ever seen in one place. People were so astonished to find during the day it needed no interior lighting and as it appeared made of ‘crystal’, the name Crystal Palace was born.
So why was it built? Although most of you will be familiar with the name Crystal Palace; the reason it was built may not be so familiar.
It was built as a show piece to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, when more than 14,000 exhibitors from around the world, came to display examples of the latest technology of the day.
The design had to depend on the size of the panes of glass that were available at that time, which was 10 inches by 4 ft. These identical panes were used for the whole building, a massive 900,000square feet. Paxton was a very ingenious person and designed a ridge-and-furrow roof, to prevent the panes of glass shattering under the weight of excess rain. But he could not beat the good old British weather entirely and in the rain the building leaked in over a thousand places!
The Crystal Palace was built by 5,000 workmen with as many as 2,000 on site at any one time – a health and safety nightmare!
From design to its completion took less than a year, and it was finished on schedule and on budget. What an accolade to the tenacity of Joseph Paxton. All that effort for the building to stand for just six months, after which time it had to be removed and Hyde Park returned to its former status.
Paxton fought to keep the building as a ‘Winter Park and Garden under Glass’ but he didn’t win and it was dismantled and a new building was constructed at Penge Place using most of the parts of the original Crystal Palace. Paxton took this opportunity to enhance the building but it was dogged by bad luck and in November 1936, the Crystal Palace was totally destroyed by fire, the cause of which has never been ascertained. Brunel’s water towers were spared, but were to stand for just four more years before being demolished during the Second World War.
What a tragedy for us today and a great loss of our heritage. We now have to satisfy ourselves with just black and white photos of this magnificent, beautiful building, lost forever.