For most of my first year in London, I jogged through the grounds of Alexandra Palace in the north. But since I’ve been south London based, I haven’t visited her sister park, Crystal Palace. Until now.
I braved a horrible, rainy day for a tour of the site where the glorious domed exhibition centre once stood to get a better idea of the Crystal Palace story. Originally created by Joseph Paxton to house the Exhibition of all Nations, staged in Hyde Park in 1851, the structure was later dismantled and moved to Penge. We’ve fallen out of love with the mega-event we invented, even if we are to stage the Olympics this year (grumblers are reminded that the reason we were initially happy to have won, was because we beat our great rival France, who really wanted it). But the magic of the world’s first mega event lives on – and so it should. It spurred France and the U.S. into copycat shows that sparked the imagination, attracting millions. A curator of a Paris exhibition on Tarzan once told me he believed that the exoticism on show at the Chicago exhibition of 1893 inspired Edgar Rice Burroughs (imagine in a time before mass travel the wonderment of native Indians marching through town).
Six million visited the Great Exhibition, and public opinion clamoured – without success – for the palace to remain in Hyde park. It was rescued by six “gentlemen of means” who purchased the structure and moved it to Sydenham Hill. The structure was enlarged, with courts depicting different periods of architecture and hailing great works of art and manufacture. Magnificent fountains decorated the grounds, which also hosted firework displays, funfairs, motor racing (the first person to be killed by a car was in Crystal Palace) and other events.
But in 1936, the palace was destroyed in a fire. It was never rebuilt, partly because it was never profitable: construction costs far outweighing expectations (will we never learn?). The history, however, is kept alive in a charming and fascinating museum in the only surviving structure (besides the railway, the dilapidated and somehow sad terrace, and the sphinxes) from the time.