For my walk I decided to start off with a guided tour and then branch off and do some exploring on my own. I took a walking tour of what is left of the Crystal Palace, after it was destroyed by a fire eighty years ago.
The Crystal Palace was orignially located in Hyde Park, and was intended to be a temporary structure for the Great Exhibition in 1851. It was a place to show off innovations, discoveries, and culture. Even the palace itself was a technological marvel of the time.
After its move from Hyde Park, the Crystal Palace continued to be an exhibition space – demonstrating achitecture, art, sculpture, and was used for sporting events, fairs, and other cultural events.
I had wanted to visit Crystal Palace since I got here in September, as I knew it to be the home of some of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’ dinosaurs. Like most kids, I had a dinosaur phase, where I knew all of their names, and was determined to become a paleontologist. This was when I first learned about Hawkins and his dinosaurs, as well as the Crystal Palace.*
I knew that the Crystal Palace had been destroyed by fire in the 1930’s, but what I did not know was just how much of it had been destroyed, and how that had affected the land around it. There was only one original metal pillar left from the original structure of the Palace, and one small group of replica beams.
Most of the stone terrace and stairway that ran down from where the Palace used to be was either fenced off, or in overgrown ruins.
This was the area that the tour was held in. We walked along and down the terrace, the guide describing and explaining the gardens, fountains, and other structures that had once been there, but were now gone. As we were walking I wondered about why so little of this landmark had been restored after its destruction. The only items that I saw either restored or recreated were the sphinxes, the small metal archway, and later, some of the dinosaurs. For a moment I thought that people had simply given up on the Palace after the fire in 1936, as it just seemed hell-bent on falling apart. The fire that destroyed the Palace for good was not the first one it suffered. There had been another fire on December 30, 1866 that destroyed the north transept. Even before these fires, in 1861 the palace was badly damaged by a gale.
One wouldn’t think that a building made primarily out of metal and glass would be so vulnerable to fire as to catch on fire more than once, yet it remained frustratingly flammable. It did have wooden floors, as well as wooden seating for events, and this seems to have been its downfall.
Our tour guide explained later that the reason why so little restoration happened was because of a lack of funding that has continued through to today, which made more sense than my theory, but I was still struck by just how much disaster the Crystal Palace endured before that final fire in 1936.
Since the dinosaurs were not part of the walk, as they were some distance from where the Palace once stood, I went off on my own to find them. When I left the terrace, I expected gardens, and more old stone walls and crumbling statues. However, just beyond the terrace was a collection of modern sports buildings and fields, even a small track that looked like something that go-carts could be raced on.
I found this rather jarring and strange, considering the contrast of where I had just come from, until I remembered that, alongside exhibiting art, and foreign wonders, the Crystal Palace had also hosted a number of different sporting events, including motor races, and cricket matches, even hosting 20 F.A. Cup Finals. I found this fitting. It was as if part of what Crystal Palace once was, was still alive and well, even with other attractions gone or in disrepair, the sports facilities remained something that was well used and maintained. Upon further research I found that this sports complex was finished in the 1960’s, and is significant in that it is a multi-use complex.
Had I not gone on the tour of the grounds first, I would have been able to gather very little from my surroundings just on observation alone. There are no markers or plaques and the only immediate source of information was the small museum nearby. The park felt forgotten, and unimportant, rather than the site of a piece of monumental architecture. It could have been the weather – overcast, with a biting wind – that affected my perception of it, but the park felt like a ruin, with modernity slowly creeping in on it. The tallest structure in the area was not a reconstruction of a building, but rather a TV tower, that loomed over the park like a poor man’s Eiffel Tower. It was helpful only in imagining how tall the Palace once was, by providing a kind of ruler that one could use to gauge height.
Maybe it all comes down to money. The Palace burned down only a few years before WWII began in England, so it makes sense that money would not be spent during or after the war, when there were more important projects that it could be used for. In fact, during WWII the water towers that had flanked the palace were torn down to remove a landmark for enemy planes. To restore the palace in its entirety would be incredibly expensive, so it is no wonder that so little has happened on the site in regards to restoration. There have been proposals for rebuilding in the past, such as one costing £500 million in 2013, yet none ever came to fruition.
In a modern London, the Crystal Palace is no longer needed as an exhibition space for culture and invention. Times have changed since the Victorian era and the Crystal Palace’s importance has shifted from a display of modernity and the future, to a landmark of a time long past.
*The book that inspired me as a child: The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins, by Barbara Kerley, and illustrated by Brian Selznick