The Crystal Palace

Blogs

12.11.2014

he latter half of the 19th century was arguably the most prolific period of life-changing invention in the history of humankind. During Queen Victoria’s lifetime the mostly rural economy was transformed by the steam engine and the railway line. The deliberate patterns of agrarian life recorded in Thomas Hardy novels were wrenched into the new infrastructure of a dynamic global marketplace, and the quality of British life, for good or bad, was irrevocably changed. World maps of the period are mostly colored a dominant shade of pink to indicate the far-flung territories of the British Empire.

Champion of this industrial revolution and beloved husband of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert spearheaded a movement to show off the splendors of the Empire along with the technological innovations that enabled Britain to lead the world. In parlours and salons, the conversations turned to the idea of a great industrial fair to which different countries would be invited to display their treasures and innovations.

Architects were commissioned to create a glorious building to house the exhibition. Unfortunately the sheer size of the structure being contemplated made the designs extremely difficult. Plan after plan was submitted; some had foundations and walls so massive it would take years to build and others greatly exceeded the budget available. There were strenuous objections to the number of venerable trees in Hyde Park that would have to be removed during construction. In 1851, ten months before the exhibition was slated to open, 245 designs had been submitted . All were rejected as unworkable. Facing disaster, the committee created a new committee (with a longer title), headed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, with a single instruction – to come up with a design worthy of the greatest exhibition in history, to begin construction in ten months and to do it all within a shrunken and constrained budget.

The building that they came up with was, as Bill Bryson describes it, “A thing of unhappy wonder. A vast low dark shed of a building, pregnant with gloom, with all the spirit and playfulness of an abattoir.” Brunel’s contribution was an enormous iron dome some 200 feet across. Nobody knew how an iron dome of that weight could be lifted, or how deep the foundations would need to be to support it. Construction of the building would require 30 million bricks and both the cost and time required to build it was incalculable.

Into this unfolding crisis stepped the calm figure of Joseph Paxton, a landscape gardener and hothouse designer whose latest accomplishment was designing a greenhouse to protect the lily collection of the Duke of Devonshire. He proposed a building constructed of prefabricated parts that stood on the ground like a tent. It consisted of an intricate network of slender iron rods sustaining walls of clear glass. The main body of the building was to be 1,851 feet long (in celebration of the year) and 408 feet wide; the height of the central transept to be 108 feet. The construction would occupy some 18 acres on the ground, while its total floor area was to be about 990,000 square feet (or about 23 acres). On the ground floor and galleries there would be more than 8 miles of space for display tables.

Within six months the building was complete, under budget, ready to receive the exhibits and astonishing the populace with its clear walls and ceilings that did not require interior lights, hence a “Crystal Palace.” The venerable trees were simply enclosed and provided a leafy shade to the delighted visitors.

After the international hoop-la of the opening ceremonies and several exclusive showings, the building was thrown open to the hoi polloi. Intrigued by the slogan “The world for a shilling,” six million people came to see the offerings of the 14,000 exhibitors. It really was the first public building where the classes found common ground (so to speak) in their reaction to such marvels as the impressive flushing toilets that were offered for the convenience of all. When the exhibition closed in October the building was taken down, piece by piece, and rebuilt at Sydenham Hill in Upper Norwood, overlooking London from the south where it survived until the great fire of 1936. During these roughly 80 years of existence, the Crystal Palace was home to a wide range of entertainments – exhibitions, concerts with enormous orchestras and choruses, music hall acts, pantomimes, tight rope walkers, football matches, flower shows – anything that could bring in a large audience.

Of all the famous halls in London and the provinces, the Crystal Palace spanned the entire history of music hall, from 1852 to 1936, from Victorian to Edwardian all the way to Variety in the 1930’s. Today it is memorialized in the name of a premier league football club and a tube stop. Interestingly, there are current plans commissioned by a consortium of English and Chinese developers to completely rebuild the Crystal Palace in Bromley in South East London. The latest news is that the “over-ambitious designs” have run into difficulties…

Paddy Swanson 2014

share this story on social media

Related Stories
See More
Blogs
11.23.2021
Thanks Giving

Read More

Blogs
10.08.2021
Meet Arkansas Light, Christmas Revels Production Stage Manager

Read More

Blogs
09.22.2021
Artist Spotlight: Ken Field

Read More

Volunteer Spotlight
01.26.2021
Volunteer Spotlight: Haley Fisher

Read More

Reviews
12.29.2020
The Sleepless Critic Review: Christmas Revels 50th virtual anniversary delivers mirth, merriment,

Read More

Reviews
12.23.2020
Review: Christmas Classics – Virtual Editions and Good as New!!

Read More

Reviews
12.19.2020
Boston Globe Review: This virtual Christmas Revels is a virtual triumph

Read More

Volunteer Spotlight
11.10.2020
Volunteer Spotlight: Rachel Grygorcewicz

Read More

Volunteer Spotlight
10.29.2020
Volunteer Spotlight: Nick Browse

Read More

Volunteer Spotlight
10.01.2020
Volunteer Spotlight: Ross Hall

Read More

Volunteer Spotlight
08.26.2020
Volunteer Spotlight: Harvey Cohen

Read More

Volunteer Spotlight
08.05.2020
Volunteer Spotlight: Cathie Ghorbani

Read More

Volunteer Spotlight
07.07.2020
Volunteer Spotlight: Mari Young

Read More

Volunteer Spotlight
06.30.2020
Volunteer Spotlight: Julie Smith

Read More

Blogs
05.19.2020
David Zooms to Perkins

Read More

Volunteer Spotlight
05.13.2020
Volunteer Spotlight: John Recroft

Read More

Blogs
04.30.2020
MAYDAY! MAYDAY! MAYDAY!

Read More

Reviews
12.19.2019
Review: Christmas Revels Brings Its Special Cheer to Depression Era America

Read More

Reviews
12.19.2019
BWW Review: THE CHRISTMAS REVELS: A Long Tradition of Community Forged Through

Read More

Reviews
12.17.2019
Theater Review: The Christmas Revels – American Version

Read More

Reviews
12.16.2019
REVIEW: Nearly 50, Christmas Revels is better than ever

Read More

Reviews
12.14.2019
REVIEW: This Christmas Revels goes to the American heartland

Read More

Blogs
11.21.2019
Thanksgiving

Read More

Blogs
06.21.2019
Solstice Duality

Read More

Blogs
03.19.2019
Happy Spring!

Read More

Reviews
12.20.2018
REVIEW: Christmas Revels Celebrates the ‘Other’ Great White North

Read More

Reviews
12.18.2018
REVIEW: ‘The Christmas Revels’ points north

Read More

Reviews
12.18.2018
Theater Review: The Christmas Revels – A Wonderful Nordic Celebration

Read More

Blogs
11.12.2018
Just Add Audience

Read More

Blogs
06.21.2018
The Longest Day

Read More

Blogs
05.16.2018
A Magical Experience: The Making of a CD

Read More

Blogs
02.14.2018
Malibu 2018

Read More

Reviews
12.27.2017
REVIEW: Revels’ ‘Venetian Celebration’ glitters

Read More

Reviews
12.13.2017
REVIEW: Old World Music, Comedy from Renaissance Era Lights Up Christmas Revels

Read More

Blogs
12.12.2017
St. Nicholas in Bohemia: Mikulas Eve

Read More

Reviews
12.10.2017
REVIEW: A handsome ‘Christmas Revels’ brings the party to Venice

Read More

Reviews
12.01.2017
A liberating holiday performance

Read More

Blogs
11.30.2017
The Master of the Revels

Read More

Blogs
06.21.2017
The Solstice Stands Revealed

Read More

Announcements
06.15.2017
Revels is here! Revels is here!

Read More

Blogs
05.24.2017
Striding Arches

Read More

Blogs
04.18.2017
Moonlighting with Shakespeare

Read More

Blogs
02.23.2017
What Blizzard?

Read More

Reviews
12.14.2016
Christmas Revels Enchants with Celebration of Acadian, Cajun Cultures

Read More

Announcements
12.12.2016
The Holy and the Broken Hallelujah Or How I learned to stop

Read More

Reviews
12.12.2016
This Acadian-Cajun Christmas Revels lets the good times roll

Read More

Reviews
12.04.2016
Annual Christmas Revels’ production fills the stage with delight

Read More

Blogs
06.06.2016
A Music Director Reflects

Read More

Blogs
04.11.2016
Fenway’s Ritual Earth

Read More

Announcements
03.08.2016
Welcome to Our New Music Director

Read More

Blogs
02.17.2016
Reflections on Malibu

Read More

Reviews
12.14.2015
‘Christmas Revels’ finally makes it to Wales

Read More

Blogs
12.10.2015
Christmas Revels – Looking Back and Looking Forward

Read More

Blogs
10.26.2015
Dylan Thomas: the intersection where poetry and drama meet

Read More

Announcements
09.16.2015
Revels Music Director George Emlen Announces His Retirement

Read More

Blogs
08.24.2015
Giving Voice

Read More

Blogs
07.17.2015
A Revels Director in Wales

Read More

Blogs
06.19.2015
Summer solstice: the year’s circus act

Read More

Reviews
06.12.2015
The Boston Globe profiles harpist Maeve Gilchrist and Revels FRINGE

Read More

Announcements
05.27.2015
Reporting on Education at Revels

Read More

Blogs
05.11.2015
The Great Flying Machine Race

Read More

Blogs
05.01.2015
The Wheel of the World

Read More

Blogs
04.13.2015
What’s Your Version of the Revels Elephant?

Read More

Announcements
01.26.2015
Farewell from Steve

Read More

Announcements
01.14.2015
Summer Camp

Read More

Reviews
12.17.2014
Fuse Theater Review: The Christmas Revels – Charming English Music Hall Edition

Read More

Reviews
12.17.2014
The Boston Globe Review: For Christmas Revels, a welcome return to Victorian

Read More

Reviews
12.16.2014
Events Insider Review: Christmas Revels Brings Victorian Dance Hall Celebration to Sanders

Read More

Reviews
12.15.2014
TAB Newspapers Theater Review: Revels transports audiences to Victorian England

Read More

Blogs
12.11.2014
The Crystal Palace

Read More

Blogs
09.16.2014
Don’t Blame Persephone

Read More

Blogs
07.07.2014
From the FRINGE: Who’s Maeve Listening to?

Read More

Blogs
06.20.2014
Solstice Fires

Read More

Blogs
04.25.2014
Patriot’s Day – My Favorite Holiday

Read More

Announcements
04.14.2014
A Forum on Arts Funding

Read More

Blogs
03.18.2014
Spring Forward

Read More

Blogs
03.03.2014
The Itinerant Musician

Read More

Announcements
02.05.2014
Welcome to the Revels blog

Read More

Stay up to date
with Revels.
Sign up to receive email updates on performances, events, and news coming from Revels.