What Happened to the Crystal Palace?

The Crystal Palace was once a star feature on London’s skyline, but it was catastrophically destroyed during a dramatic and unforeseen event.

May 25, 2023By Rosie Lesso, MA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine Art

what happened to the crystal palace


The Crystal Palace, designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, was once the crowning glory of London’s Hyde Park, attracting audiences from far and wide. Built to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, it only stayed in central London for a year, before being dismantled and reconfigured for its new location in Kent, near London, where it remained for nearly 100 years. Here, it featured a huge range of exhibitions, tourist attractions and leisure pursuits. But what actually happened to the Crystal Palace and where is it now? We look into the demise of this one glorious building which symbolized the pinnacle of Victorian architecture, and what, if anything, remains of its history today.


The Crystal Palace Moved from Hyde Park to Sydenham Hill

Crystal Palace on Sydenham Hill, Kent


The first significant change that would alter the course of the Crystal Palace’s history occurred during its first year. Once the Great Exhibition of 1851 came down, the building had, effectively, served its purpose. Moreover, it was only ever intended as a temporary fixture in such a prominent site within the center of London. But, given its widespread popularity, a new site for the Crystal Palace was secured in the nearby rural location of Sydenham Hill, where it was surrounded by large parklands.


Plans were put in place to extend the Crystal Palace into a bigger version of its former self, with additional space to house exhibits old and new from all over the world. The grounds were also transformed into spaces for public entertainment, with themed areas and fairground rides. Queen Victoria opened the new Crystal Palace to the public in 1854, and many thousands of visitors came flocking year after year to enjoy it. 


It Was Partially Damaged During a Fire

Vintage photograph demonstrating the sheer scale of the Crystal Palace


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The Crystal Palace experienced its first near-catastrophic fire in 1866. The fire wiped out the palace’s entire north wing and transept. Unfortunately, the building had never been insured, and there was little public funding available to repair the extent of the damage. This meant the damaged area was never rebuilt, leaving Paxton’s design lopsided from this period onwards.


The Crystal Palace Burned to the Ground in 1936

Wreckage following the 1936 fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace


In 1936 an even greater fire took hold of the Crystal Palace, this time wiping out pretty much the entire building. The fire was a spectacular tragedy, visible by thousands of spectators across London, lighting up the sky like a radioactive sunset – some eyewitnesses even reported flames reaching 300 feet high. Police at the time estimated that crowds of 100,000 people gathered to watch their beloved palace fall to the ground, and their presence caused significant problems for the police, who had to try and manage the throngs of people.


More than 500 firefighters wrestled with around 70 different pumps and hoses in an attempt to control the blaze. They were able to put out the fire by the beginning of the next day, but by then the building was damaged way beyond repair, leaving only two water towers and part of the north nave. Six years later, the towers were demolished, for fear they might be a target for German bombers during World War II. While nobody knows what actually caused the fire, the most widely accepted explanation is an electrical fault.


Parts of the Crystal Palace Park Still Exist Today

Vintage postcard of Crystal Palace


Following the destruction of the Crystal Palace, the park grounds underwent a period of dereliction. In 1937, part of the site was converted into a motor racing circuit, and it remained in place until 1972. Meanwhile, other areas of the park were remodeled in the 1960s as a sports park, and they still remain in place today. Another period of change occurred in 1986, when the London Borough of Bromley took on ownership of the park, and oversaw some dramatic renovation work to restore the site to its former glory. From 2001 to 2003, they arranged significant restoration work on the park’s dinosaur park, which visitors can still view today, along with a series of new buildings and visitor attractions built in the style of the original palace.

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By Rosie LessoMA Contemporary Art Theory, BA Fine ArtRosie is a contributing writer and artist based in Scotland. She has produced writing for a wide range of arts organizations including Tate Modern, The National Galleries of Scotland, Art Monthly, and Scottish Art News, with a focus on modern and contemporary art. She holds an MA in Contemporary Art Theory from the University of Edinburgh and a BA in Fine Art from Edinburgh College of Art. Previously she has worked in both curatorial and educational roles, discovering how stories and history can really enrich our experience of art.