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The Crystal Palace

 

The Crystal Palace was a cast-iron and plate-glass structure originally built in Hyde Park, London, to house the Great Exhibition of 1851. The exhibition took place from 1 May until 15 October 1851, and more than 14,000 exhibitors from around the world gathered in its 990,000 square feet (92,000 m2) exhibition space to display examples of technology developed in the Industrial Revolution. Designed by Joseph Paxton, the Great Exhibition building was 1,851 feet (564 m) long, with an interior height of 128 feet (39 m). It was three times the size of St Paul's Cathedral.

It has been suggested that the name of the building resulted from a piece penned by the playwright Douglas Jerrold, who in July 1850 wrote in the satirical magazine Punch about the forthcoming Great Exhibition, referring to a "palace of very crystal".

The Commission in charge of mounting the Great Exhibition was established in January 1850, and it was decided at the outset that the entire project would be funded by public subscription. An executive Building Committee was quickly formed to oversee the design and construction of the exhibition building, comprising Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Robert Stephenson, renowned architects Charles Barry and Thomas Leverton Donaldson, the Duke of Buccleuch and the Earl of Ellesmere, and chaired by William Cubitt. By 15 March 1850 they were ready to invite submissions, which had to conform to several key specifications: the building had to be temporary, simple, as cheap as possible, and economical to build within the short time remaining before the Exhibition opening, which had already been scheduled for 1 May 1851.

Paxton left his meeting with Henry Cole on 9 June 1850 fired with enthusiasm. He immediately went to Hyde Park, where he 'walked' the site earmarked for the Exhibition. Two days later, on 11 June, while attending a board meeting of the Midland Railway, Paxton made his original concept drawing, which he doodled onto a sheet of pink blotting paper. This rough sketch (now in the Victoria & Albert Museum) incorporated all the basic features of the finished building, and it is a mark of Paxton's ingenuity and industriousness that detailed plans, calculations and costings were ready to submit in less than two weeks.

Impressed by the low bid for the construction contract submitted by the engineering firm Fox, Henderson and Co, the commission accepted the scheme and finally gave its public endorsement to Paxton's design in July 1850. He was exultant, but now had less than eight months to finalize his plans, manufacture the parts and erect the building in time for the Exhibition's opening, which was scheduled for 1 May 1851. Paxton was able to design and build the largest glass structure yet created, from scratch, in less than a year, and complete it on schedule and on budget. He was even able to alter the design shortly before building began, adding a high, barrel-vaulted transept across the centre of the building, at 90 degrees to the main gallery, under which he was able to safely enclose several large elm trees that would otherwise have had to be felledthereby also resolving a controversial issue that had been a major sticking point for the vocal anti-Exhibition lobby.

As soon as two adjacent columns had been erected, a girder was hoisted into place between them and bolted onto the connectors. The columns were erected in opposite pairs, then two more girders were connected to form a self-supporting squarethis was the basic frame of each module. The shears would then be moved along and an adjoining bay constructed. When a reasonable number of bays had been completed, the columns for the upper floor were erected (longer shear-legs were used for this, but the operation was essentially the same as for the ground floor). Once the ground floor structure was complete, the final assembly of the upper floor followed rapidly.

When completed, The Crystal Palace provided an unrivaled space for exhibits, since it was essentially a self-supporting shell standing on slim iron columns, with no internal structural walls whatsoever. Because it was covered almost entirely in glass, it also needed no artificial lighting during the day, thereby reducing the Exhibition's running costs.

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