Lost Masterpieces

The Glorious Birth and Blazing End of London’s Crystal Palace

Built in the mid-19th century, almost entirely of glass and iron, the grand Crystal Palace was a symbol of British pride. But it would suffer a fiery fate.

The Keasbury-Gordon Photograph Archive / Alamy

On the night of Nov. 30, 1936, just after the clock struck 8 p.m., a Londoner made a harrowing discovery—the Crystal Palace, the colossal building constructed of glass and iron that sat atop Sydenham Hill to the south of the city, was on fire. It didn’t take long for the small flame to blaze out of control, spreading to engulf large parts of the building in a conflagration that was visible for miles around.

“Within three hours after the outbreak the celebrated show place, known to millions in three generations, lay a smoldering, charred ruin,” read the front-page story in The New York Times the following morning.

If you were a visitor to London at the turn of the 20th century, the Crystal Palace would have been at the top of your tourist bucket list as one of the city’s iconic landmarks that held the same prestige as the Tower of London or Buckingham Palace still hold to this day.

The firemen who rushed to the scene that fiery night quickly realized there was nothing they could do to stop the raging inferno (an effort that wasn’t helped by a large stockpile of fireworks onsite).

The sad remains of the building survived for another four years, but London soon came to understand what those first responders did: The glory days of the Crystal Palace had come to an end.

But to understand this magnificent building’s fall, we have to go back to 1851, when London was poised to host a Great Exhibition. In the years leading up to this international affair, it was all the rage to host local exhibitions that showcased hometown feats of manufacturing and design.

In 1849, Sir Henry Cole, a British inventor and civil servant, visited one of these shows in Paris, where he realized that there was no venue where the leading manufacturers from various nations could come together to show their work in one place.

He quickly convinced Prince Albert—husband of Queen Victoria—that England’s upcoming exhibition should become a Great Exhibition, the first-ever international show displaying the best the world had to offer.

If you’re going to throw an exhibition of this import and magnitude, you certainly can’t host it in any old building that happens to be free. Or that’s what Prince Albert must have thought. He decided that the spectacular and progressive exhibits that were sure to populate the show needed a home that was just as cutting-edge, just as fearless. He hosted a design competition, and the winner (drum roll, please)… was a gardener.

That’s right. Joseph Paxton, was the gardener to the Duke of Devonshire who had moved up the ranks to become the head gardener at Chatsworth House, the family’s country home.

Through his work designing the grounds, building conservatories, and more, he eventually had “architect” appended to his bio. This designation was firmly secured when his design for the Great Exhibition was chosen as the winner, beating over 248 competing entries.

His creation was the Crystal Palace, a grand building inspired by a lily greenhouse that he had built on the Chatsworth grounds which was to be an innovative structure made almost entirely of glass and iron. At the time, this was a revolutionary idea, and, naturally, it had its detractors.

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“Although it had been hailed as a forerunner of modern functional architecture, there were many in the early days who were certain the first gale would wreck it or that the Summer sun would roast the occupants,” The New York Times wrote in the article detailing the building’s fateful demise.

But, despite these concerns, Prince Albert was determined that this was the structure worthy of the Great Exhibition.

Over the next eight months, 2,000 men worked tirelessly to construct the giant space. Many of the pieces were pre-fabricated, a manufacturing process that was cutting-edge at the time, and they used 300,000 panes of glass that came in the largest size that had ever been cut to that date.

On May 1, 1851, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria presided over a ceremony complete with all the attendant pomp and circumstance of a royal soiree to officially open the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London.

“This day is one of the greatest and most glorious of our lives,” Queen Victoria’s diary entry from that day reads. “The sun shone and gleamed upon the gigantic edifice, upon which the flags of every nation were flying… The tremendous cheering, the joy expressed in every face, the vastness of the building, with all its decoration and exhibits, the sound of the organ… all this was indeed moving.”

The show was a rousing success. Over 6 million people attended the exhibit during its run over the next six months. Fourteen thousand exhibitors took part in the show, split evenly between those hailing from the British Empire and those from foreign countries.

While overall the exhibition was a triumph, not everyone was a fan. Early detractors opposed the intermingling of ideas from different countries, fearing that this act would be akin to giving away state secrets. But one famous curmudgeon was just not a supporter of the show in general.

In a letter written on July 11, 1851, Charles Dickens expressed his exhaustion and bewilderment by the onslaught of things to see at the Great Exhibition. “I have a natural horror of sights, and the fusion of so many sights in one has not decreased it,” he wrote.

Because of the initial opposition to the exhibition’s massive glassy new home, it was agreed early on in the project that the Crystal Palace would only be a temporary space erected for this particular show.

But when the Great Exhibition came to a close on Oct. 11, 1851, it quickly became clear that the Crystal Palace was too impressive a structure to be lost to history.

So, in 1852, a painstaking, two-year effort was undertaken to move the structure to Sydenham Hill. Because it was already going to be a tough job, the thought must have been, why not make the structure even bigger?

In June 1854, Queen Victoria polished up her crown once again, and presided over another ceremony to reopen the Crystal Palace 2.0.

The enlarged structure now clocked in at 1,848 feet by 408 feet, and it became “the world’s first theme park.”

Over the next eight decades, a host of shows, exhibits, performances, and overall curiosities could be seen there by the people of London and the tourists who visited the great empire.

The space continued its mission to educate the public by presenting museum-worthy exhibitions exploring natural history and innovative new ideas.

But it was also a place to just plain have fun. In addition to hot air balloons, roller coaster rides, sports matches, and more, the Crystal Palace hosted a variety of entertaining shows, including an annual cat show.

In an article covering the 1879 edition, The New York Times wrote that there were 266 cats entered to compete that year. “The cat show is deliciously feminine. Little cages, disposed in four lines along the aisle of the Palace, hold each a cushion, a large basin of milk, a quantity of sawdust, and a cat. There is no such undignified eagerness for public attention as the dogs display.”

In fact, this was such a lasting tradition that, over 50 years later, the Times would note that it was pure providence that the Crystal Palace caught on fire when it did. The next day, the cat show was scheduled to begin and, had the fire broken out one evening later, the fine feline specimens would have been at risk.

While over 2 million people a year enjoyed the attractions at the Crystal Palace, one famous scribbler still couldn’t be pleased. In a letter written on Nov. 1, 1854, Dickens made it clear that his initial disapproval was not just for the Great Exhibition itself, but also for the “terrific duffery” of a building that housed it.

“It is a very remarkable thing in itself; but to have so very large a building continually crammed down one’s throat, and to find it a new page in ‘The Whole Duty of Man’ to go there, is a little more than even I (and you know how amiable I am) can endure,” Dickens wrote.

The ensuing decades weren’t all rosy. There was a bankruptcy, a deadly accident here and there, and a few close calls with natural disasters, including a small fire in 1866.

But the fire that finally took the glassy wonder down came 70 years later, when a flame whose origin was never discovered, would appear. While all lives were spared in the fire that was the greatest blaze since the Great Fire of 1666, the contents of the Crystal Palace were destroyed, along with the majority of the structure itself.

On June 24, 1940, the Crystal Palace’s fate was sealed for the final time. Fearing that it would become a target or guide for German bombers, the city decided to demolish the remaining structure. Sixteen hundred tons of steel and iron that had once provided shelter to some of the most marvelous feats of manufacturing and engineering in the world were collected and repurposed. Now, they would wow the world with their new industrial power: waging war.

Today, the structure’s legacy is just as tangible: The London district in which it stood and a famous British soccer team are both named Crystal Palace.