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Crystal Palace, the world’s most awesome building at the time

I recently watched a few episodes of my Favorite TV Show Ever, Great British Railway Journeys; a trip from Brighton to Crystal Palace.

I first heard the words Crystal Palace used together in a sentence when my voice teacher lived at the Crystal Palace train stop in south London.  Yes, I spent a year singing alto musical pieces in a flat in south London once a week.  I can murder the female part of Children of Eden’s In Whatever Time We Have, but that’s a different story.

Anyway, my voice teacher – I think his name was Martin, but I forget.  For the sake of memory, we’ll just refer to him as Martin from here on out – he lived by Crystal Palace, so I heard the stop called out every week,  not knowing much about what it was, other than that it was also a football club.

Then I listened to Bill Bryson’s wonderful book At Home, a History of Private Life on a road trip to Sacramento, and in his marvelous way, Bryson managed to give a history of the home tying together tea kettles to salt to Ikea to Crystal Palace.

In 1851 there was a Great Exhibition in London where Prince Albert decided it would be a good idea to have a showcase of all the new and wonderful inventions and industrial achievements of the modern world.  Lots of countries, including France, the US, and Egypt attended with over 14,000 exhibits in four categories: Raw Materials, Fine Arts, Machinery and Manufacturers.

Sir Joseph Paxton, an architect and Member of Parliament designed the glass palace, which was possible by recent advances in the technology of both cast iron and glass (cast plate glass invented in 1848, which allowed for cheap and strong large plates of glass) as well as a drop in the tax on glass, which made it cheaper.  He decided to have an entire palace made only of glass, including the ceiling, and worked the geometry around it.  The plates of glass measured 10 inches wide by 49 inches long, and it took millions of plates to build the entire building, which was 1851 feet long, 408 feet wide, and 128 feet high.

The whole thing felt like strolling through the park, as he had included live trees throughout the building.  But a major puzzle to work out was maintaining a comfortable temperature – this was decades before air conditioning, and thousands of people would be walking through the building, which was in Hyde Park originally (it was later moved to Syndenham Hill in South London after the Great Exhibition).  Paxton worked through this by having external shading cloths which could be wet and the water evaporation would cool the building.  He also built in some ventilation that helped move air from the floor to the ceiling.

It would have been pretty amazing to look at, and Paxton was knighted by Queen Victoria for his efforts.

After the Exhibition, the Palace was moved at a cost of almost ten times the initial cost to build it.  A consortium of businessmen thought it would be an attraction for people to come visit, and they turned it into the world’s first theme park with roller coasters, cricket matches, and even 20 FA Cup finals between 1895 and 1914.  Part of the grounds included a Dinosaur Park, with models of dinosaurs, before any full fossils of complete dinosaurs were even discovered, though they were amazingly accurate for being mostly guesses.

The poor building was extremely unlucky, though.  First off in 1861 it was damaged by strong winds.  Then in 1866 a fire broke out destroying the north end and damaging some natural history exhibits.  In 1892 someone died from a hot air balloon accident.  In 1900 a visitor was trampled by an escaped elephant.

In November 1936 the whole thing caught fire and collapsed after a small office fire expanded and 400 firemen and 89 engines couldn’t put it out.  The glow was visible from 8 counties, and Winston Churchill declared that it was “the end of an age.”

Nowdays, Crystal Palace is a premiership football club, and I have no idea how they’re doing because I only pay attention to Tottenham now, who are apparently just out of the Champion’s League thanks to their recent loss to Chelsea.  Don’t rely on me for any other in depth football analysis.  But you can watch this cool video with images of the Crystal Palace if you want to see more.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yow5E_v7MgE]