• Kevin Murphy

South London: Crystal Palace

Built in 1851 to house the Great Exhibition featuring 14,000 exhibitors Crystal Palace 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.”

Shortly after the fire started, thousands of local residents gathered to watch the structures demise with hundreds of police officers summoned for crowd control. It was also reported in the London Fire Journal that others viewed the fire from rooftops and Members of Parliament watched from committee rooms and terraces. The Duke of Kent went to the fire lines dressed as a firefighter to view the situation.

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 a new £500 million scheme to rebuild the Crystal Palace to its original Victorian design.

Mayor Johnson said the plans were “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.

Like so many of these large scale property developments there was opposition to elements of the scheme especially in protection of ‘green’ areas. In a BBC interview London assembly Green Party member Darren Johnson said it was a "poorly-timed" proposal.

He said: "While I'm sure many people would love to see the Crystal Palace raised from the ashes, this precious parkland isn't the right place for it. When the palace was moved there in the 1850s the newly-laid out park was near countryside, but today it's an urban park with a lot of space already taken up by the national sports centre, car parks, roads and the caravan site.”

London ES Property News reports that Crystal Palace has become popular for younger buyers looking to get on the property ladder because of its moderate property prices. One quarter of homes sold are to younger buyers with the average home value of £330,000 with the next being east in Kent where first time buyers are paying an average £257,000.

One of the locations for residences, particularly resales, is Spinney Gardens which features 46 homes and is a Royal Institute of Architects award winner in best home design. The original structure was built in the 1980’s on the Crystal Palace train station site which was destroyed by the Great Fire in 1936. A one-bedroom, two-storey flat can be found for £290,000.

A new upscale development with 46 homes is Wells Park Place on Sydenham Hill.The homes, with some floor plans at nearly 2,000 sq ft, feature landscaped gardens with prices starting at £550,000 for flats and £1.4 million for townhouses.

With 48 flats Alto is a development set in a woodland setting at Sylvan Hill. Apartments include penthouses, with one featuring a domed living space with a large private terrace. Prices start at £417,500.

The city centre has the Triangle with three connecting streets with restaurants and retail outlets. Getting to Crystal Palace is easily accessible by rail on the London Overground.

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