Crystal Palace Reborn
Film & Text by Kevin Murphy
Crystal Palace was once poised to become one of South London’s new popular hotspots as a result of new residential developments and its location.
Named for the grand all glass exhibition centre built in 1851 to house the Great Exhibition featuring 14,000 exhibitors the structure was first located in Hyde Park. The building originally offered 990,000 square feet of space. With the exhibition over the structure was eventually dismantled and relocated to the estate of Penge Place at Sydenham Hill in 1854. Once rebuilt and enlarged the new Crystal Palace 200 acre location included schools with academics in art, engineering, literature and science. It also hosted the first cat show, 20 FA Cup Finals and the original location of the Imperial War Museum. During the First World War, it was used to train members of the Royal Navy. Because Sydenham Hill is one of Londons highest land areas the building could be seen from great distances from all around the city. Today the area is often referred to as Crystal Palace Park featuring the National Sports Centre along with television transmitter masts for broadcasts in London. Adjacent is the landmark Crystal Palace Triangle shopping area at the Crystal Palace Park, Westow Park and Stambourne Woodland Walk. The grounds of the Palace have been featured in films and used for concerts. All that remains today of the site are the Italian style steps and terraces.
The Great Fire
On 30 November 1936 the entire Crystal Palace structure was completely destroyed by fire. The New York Times described the disaster in its front page edition as :
“Engulfed in a roaring sheet of flames, which towered so high into the night sky that it could be seen almost from the English Channel, the world-famous Crystal Palace, architectural pride of the Victorian era, crashed to the earth tonight a raging inferno of twisted girders and molten glass.”
The London Fire Journal in 1936 reported : “A man named Henry Buckland and his daughter Crystal, named for the London palace, were walking their dog when they noticed a small fire and sounded the alarm.The flames spread swiftly, engulfing the structure - and prompting London Fire Brigade commanders to summon a total of 88 fire engines and 438 firefighters, including some from neighboring cities, according to the BBC.”
Additional reports stated that “Within a half hour, the great arcade of glass, towering 175 feet, collapsed, sending up showers of sparks and blazing embers. Then as if drawn by a flue the flames swept the whole length of the nave. The first fire alarm must have been turned in soon after the blaze was discovered, for neighboring fire brigades arrived before the flames had begun to reach their fury. But efforts to check the spread were futile, as were those of London's
The actual cause of the fire was not determined but was believed to be accidental.
80 Years Later
On 3 October 2013 a press event featuring Mayor of London, Boris Johnson was held to launch the new £500 million scheme to rebuild the Crystal Palace to its original Victorian design.
Mayor Johnson said the plans are “of the highest quality, sympathetic to this much-loved heritage site and fit for the 21st century”. Also at the event was Ni Zhaoxing the Chairman of the Chinese investment firm ZhongRong of Shanghai that was to fund the Crystal Palace development. He described the project as a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to bring the palace “back to life”. “I want to make Crystal Palace a jewel in the crown for the UK and for the world. It should be an artistic place, and it must be an art work of construction itself.” Mr. Zhaoxing also added, ”London is renowned across the world for its history and culture and the former Crystal Palace is celebrated in China as a magnificent achievement.
But by February 2015 the agreement with ZongRong Group for a 16 month contract for planning the new development was not met and the Bromely Council saw no "realistic prospect of reaching an agreement" to continue the project.
New Residential Developments
Locals have started a successful Saturday market and lobbied for the re-opening of a Rialto cinema and a beautiful listed railway subway below Crystal Place Parade.
At the heart of the town centre is the Triangle, three connecting one-way streets, often traffic-clogged, with a mix of independent shops, eateries and neighbourhood hangouts.
Spinney Gardens, a scheme of 46 homes at Crystal Palace Parade, is another architectural gem, winner of a RIBA Award celebrating the best in housing design over the last 60 years. It was built in the Eighties on the site of the original Crystal Palace train station, which served the Victorian exhibition grounds. The site was destroyed by the great fire of 1936 and had remained a ruin until architect PCKO was commissioned by Abbey National building society to design a scheme of low-cost starter homes.
Alto is a development of 48 flats in an attractive woodland setting at the summit of Sylvan Hill. It’s a neat piece of architecture, slotting into a sloping site and cleverly incorporating a car ramp to undercroft parking. Apartments include penthouses, one with a fabulous domed living space that opens to a huge private terrace. Prices from £417,500. Call 020 3006 0042.
Wells Park Place is arguably the area’s classiest new build, with 46 homes set around landscaped gardens on Sydenham Hill. Launching next month, prices start at £550,000 for flats and £1.4 million for townhouses, some more than 2,000sq ft with a ground- floor “super-room” opening on to a garden. Call Crest Nicholson on 020 3437 0472.