7. The Crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace, as built for the Great Exhibition of 1851, was the first example of a major ‘technological building’, in which traditional building materials were largely replaced by cast iron and glass.

Joseph Paxton, its designer, had no formal qualifications. He worked on the Chatsworth estate from 1826, where he skilfully diverted streams, dug lakes, lowered hills, raised valleys and moved fully grown trees to create a pinetum and arboretum. He also designed Chatsworth’s 267 foot high fountain, the highest ever operated by gravity.

Paxton removed a local hamlet and also rebuilt Edensor model village, complete with its church. His idea for the Crystal Palace no doubt stemmed from his work on the glazed cast iron structures that he built at Chatsworth, including the Orchid House, Great Conservatory (1 acre) and Lily House. The latter, built in 1849, used the hollow roof beams as gutters and the columns as rainwater drains.

The Building at Hyde Park

It’s said that Paxton initially designed the Palace of on a piece of blotting paper at a Midland Railway disciplinary committee. No Parliamentary Charter of Incorporation was introduced, so the scheme avoided the kind of Government interference experienced by modern developers.

The final drawings were created over seven days and nights, with advice on structural engineering provided by Robert Barlow of the Midland Railway. It took only another week to finalise the cost, whilst the actual construction took just 22 weeks and the final painting and fitting-out occupied another 16 weeks.

The building, as originally erected in Hyde Park, London, cost £150,000, was 1,848 feet long, 408 feet wide and 63 feet high, except for the transept, which reached 108 feet. The structure’s total volume was 33,000,000 cubic feet, roughly twice the size of St Paul’s cathedral.

The Materials

Here are some interesting statistics:-

Supporting columns3,300
Drainage conduits3,300
Principal girders2224
‘Paxton’ guttering*24 miles
Glazing bars*205 miles
Total cast iron3,800 tons
Total wrought iron700 tons
Total Timber600,000 cubic ft
Glass900,000 square ft
* All made of wood

The amount of glass is quite astonishing, accounting for between half and one third of the country’s annual output.


A concrete foundation, which still remains beneath the grass of Hyde park, was used to support the structure, whilst the existing trees were accommodated inside the building by an offset to the transept of 48 feet. The building’s floor consisted of temporary palisade timbers used as floorboards, with large gaps to aid cleaning, which, as it happens, probably led to the Palace’s final demise (see below).

The structure was inclined by one inch in every 24 feet to ensure adequate roof drainage and was constructed using 24 foot ‘modules’, these being divisible by three or by feet and inches without having to use fractions of an inch. The glass panes were 10 inches wide, which meant that 28 panes fitted into each 24 foot module, complete with the necessary glazing bars. Each pane was 4 foot 1 inch long and covered with white canvas to reduce the glare from the sun.

All the cast iron columns were eight inches in diameter, ensuring a consistent appearance throughout the structure. However, the columns had various wall thickness, between three-eighths of an inch and one and a quarter inches, depending on the load that had to be carried, whilst all of the faces were turned or milled. The transept incorporated an arch of cast iron segments with wooden ribs.

The following colour scheme was used:-

Wooden verticals
and glazing bars
Other vertical
Convex or concave
surfaces *
ExteriorWhite with blue on
circular faces of
columns & reveals
* Giving columns alternate blue and yellow surfaces.

The Exhibition

The material on display mainly reflected the commercial products of the day, although there were some very strange items, including an ‘expanding man’, consisting of 7,000 parts, as well as walking staff that incorporated an enema syringe.

Items displayed112,000
Visitors6,039,195 *
* There were 93,224 people in the building on 7th October, 1851.

The following comments were made at the time:-

‘glass monster’ — Pugin

‘a cucumber frame’ — Ruskin

‘new era in architecture’ — Matthew Digby Wyatt

‘unprecedented interior effects‘, ‘an effect of space’, ‘a general lightness and fairy-tale brilliance’, ‘it is not architecture; it is engineering of the highest merit and excellence’ — The Ecclesiologist

‘a blazing arch of lucid glass’ — Thackeray

At Sydenham

At the close of the Exhibition it was decided that the Palace should be moved to a new long-term site at Sydenham and expanded at the same time. The work was supervised by Paxton, who lived nearby in a large house called ‘Rockhills’.

The changes were extensive, doubling the glass of the original structure and involving the addition of a semi-circular roof along the entire nave, widening and raising of the central transept and providing two additional small transepts. The total cost was £1,350,000.

Work on moving the Palace began on 5th August, 1852 and was completed by 10th June, 1854. In 1857 a concert hall, complete with organ and seating up to 4,000 people, was created at the transept ‘intersection’, whilst a restaurant was added on the east face, looking out over the gardens. During the 1860s the Crystal Palace High Level station was completed, with trains running to Ludgate Hill in the City.

The greenhouse section of the new Palace contained the Loddige collection of palms, as well as King Louise-Phillipe’s orange and pomegranate trees, some of which were 400 years old. Other parts of the Palace were divided into Courts, such as Greek, Roman, Graeco-Roman, Egyptian, Moorish, Medieval and Renaissance.

The Sydenham site was extensively developed, complete with water displays, including fountains, cascades, falls and 12,000 water jets, using around 120,000 gallons of water per minute. This was provided by twin water towers at each end of the Palace, with a capacity of 300,000 gallons, corresponding to around 3,000 tons of water. These towers, designed by Brunel, were 284 ft high, of 10 storeys and constructed of ferro-concrete with wrought iron stiffening diaphragms. Unfortunately, all of the water features were disused by 1930.

The opening of the new Crystal Palace was celebrated with a dinner party for 21, which was held inside one of the model dinosaurs in the grounds.

Sadly, things soon went downhill. In 1866 a fire destroyed the north transept and it was never rebuilt. By 1890, extensive repairs were required, mainly due to problems with Paxton’s ‘patent’ gutters. Ten years later, the Palace had been divided up into booths and stalls, making it look rather ‘seedy’. Business didn’t improve, and in 1909 the Crystal Palace Company went into receivership, resulting in dispersal of some of the exhibition pieces. The City of London Trust Fund was then established and part of the building used as a motor museum. During World War I the leaking Palace was employed as a barracks, but, thanks to the City funds, the building once again opened to the public in 1920 and was later used as a temporary War Museum.


On the 30th November 1936 a fire broke out at the Palace. A strong south-west wind was blowing. Despite 88 fire engines and numerous fire fighters, only the Low Level railway station and the water towers could be saved. The fire was so massive that it was visible from the hills above Brighton.

‘glass melted and ran down the terraces and the iron frame buckled in the heat, the flames rose 300 ft‘

The following is from a Radio Times article called Crystal Gazing by John Yorath:-

For over 70 years London’s Crystal Palace had delighted millions of visitors with its magnificent firework displays. Every Thursday evening crowds filled the terraces to thrill at such pyrotechnic wonders as the Niagara Falls, full-scale sea battles and huge portraits of the King and Queen, all depicted in fireworks. The effects grew ever more breathtaking and elaborate, leaving spectators wondering how they could be surpassed.

Then, on 30 November 1936, the Palace staged one last display — the most spectacular ever — when it was consumed in the greatest single fire the capital had ever witnessed.

At about 7.30 pm a small fire was discovered in a lavatory close to the main entrance by two staff firemen. They ran out a hose to tackle the outbreak, but the flames spread with such speed that they soon realised their efforts were in vain.

Members of the Norwood Orchestra, rehearsing in the Garden Hall, were oblivious to the danger until alerted by a frantic cry: ‘Run for your lives, the Palace is blazing!’ One escaping violinist recalled hearing ghastly groans like a giant in pain, which she afterwards discovered were caused by hot air rushing through the pipes of the great Handel organ.

Almost half an hour elapsed before the fire brigade was summoned. The delay was crucial to the fire’s progress. The flames, fanned by a strong wind, swept unchecked across acres of dry timber flooring, over wooden partitions, up into the galleries and along the glazing bars.

By the time the Penge fire brigade arrived, just after 8 o’clock, the Palace was a raging inferno. The cavernous building glowed with an eerie incandescence, like some vast chandelier. The blaze could be seen all over the capital and from no fewer than ten counties. Even aeroplanes flying over the Channel reported seeing a red glow.

The fire proved an irresistible attraction to Londoners. Suppers were left to grow cold, children were snatched from their beds and wireless sets crackled to empty rooms as an estimated 100,000 people were drawn towards Sydenham Hill.

An army of policemen was drafted in to maintain order and keep the streets clear as fire-engines from all over the city fought their way through traffic-choked streets towards Sydenham. A total of 88 appliances and 438 men — almost half the capital’s force — directed thousands of tons of water onto the fire, but to no effect.

The massive iron skeleton shimmered in the searing heat and pools of molten glass filled the famous historic courts. Goldfish, which had once graced 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, revealing aeroplanes filled with sightseers and newspaper photographers, which circled overhead like vultures.

Rumours to explain how the fire started began to circulate. Suspects included such unlikely arsonists as television waves and even His Majesty’s Government. The true culprit remains a mystery, although it was probably as commonplace as a cigarette. Swept down between the floorboards, deliberately laid with gaps to make cleaning easier, it would have fallen into the accumulated dust of 82 years and formed an explosive combination.

When the central transept collapsed, with a deafening roar that could be heard five miles away, there seemed to be nothing left for the fire to devour; yet it continued to rage for a further three hours. Winston Churchill broke his return to Chartwell to watch the final moments. He stood transfixed, with tears in his eyes, murmuring, ‘This is the end of an age’. Those in the crowd were equally stunned. Some wept unashamedly, a few even knelt on the pavement and prayed.

The firemen gave up all hope of saving the main building and instead turned their attention to the south tower, part of which was used by Baird for his television experiments. The flames licked around the base and there was a very real fear that if it caught alight it might collapse with awful consequences. In saving the south tower the fire fighters enjoyed their only success.

In the early hours of the following morning the vantage point of Hampstead Heath, ten miles north, was still thronged with people gazing in disbelief at the blood-stained sky. The fire had exhausted itself but the iron and glass still glowed with lambent menace. Sir Henry Buckland, the general manager, who had devoted 16 years to restoring both the fabric and the fortunes of the Palace, told reporters: ‘In a few hours we have seen the end of the Crystal Palace. Yet it will live in the memories not only of Englishmen, but the whole world.’

By dawn the destruction was complete. Only a smouldering ruin remained — a graveyard of twisted iron. The Crystal Palace, that leviathan which had dominated south London for over 90 years, was no more. Like a mighty dinosaur of a past age it had suffered the ultimate indignity of extinction.

Sadly, the firemen’s valiant efforts at saving Brunel’s towers on that fateful day were all in vain. During World War II they were considered a useful landmark for German bombers heading towards London and were summarily demolished. A few statues and steps remained until the sixties, but even these were swept away during construction of the new sports stadium. Today, there’s little evidence of the Palace, apart from the lake, the model dinosaurs and a level expanse of land where the building once stood: just a few fragments to remind us how quickly the greatest of human endeavours can come to an end.


Many might agree with The Ecclesiologist in saying that the Crystal Palace was an example of engineering, not architecture. However, the same argument could be applied to much of the work of modern ‘steel and glass’ architects, including that of the renowned Sir Norman Foster.

The fact remains that Paxton imbued an oversized greenhouse with the proportions and grandeur of great architecture, creating an object that remained a symbol of Britain’s achievements well into the twentieth century.

Today, it’s inconceivable that an untrained gardener could ever be entrusted with the creation of a major national project. This introduces a nagging doubt that modern schemes often take the ‘safe’ option, with consequent bland results.

A comparison between the Palace and the recent Millennium Dome in unavoidable. The latter, located on a stunning site on a curve of the river Thames east of the Isle of Dogs, is similar to a large tent. It looks tawdry and cheap, causing Charles, the Prince of Wales, to succinctly describe it as a ‘flattened cowpat’.

The last words must also come from Prince Charles:-

Architecture has always been the outward expression of an inner inspiration.