The continuing controversy over the future development of the site of the former Crystal Palace has focused attention on the unique location once occupied by one of Britain’s leading tourist attractions of its day.
The publicity the site attracts highlights the huge scale of the original Crystal Palace building that occupied the upper terrace at Crystal Palace Park. The magnitude of the structure is clearly shown in a fascinating collection of photographs of the building taken by the famous French novelist, Emile Zola. These fascinating views were taken during his period of exile in Britain in 1898/0 when he was staying at the nearby Queen’s Hotel in Church Road, Upper Norwood.
Some of these photographs have been published by the Norwood Society in their book Emile Zola - Photographer in Norwood 1898/9. These magnificent Victorian views provide an intriguing glimpse of the huge glass structure that dominated the Sydenham skyline from its opening in 1854 through to 1936 when the building was destroyed by fire. A photograph of the main entrance to the Crystal palace clearly shows the large prefabricated cast-iron glazed sections from which the main building was constructed. It was the simple modular design of these sections by Joseph Paxton that enabled the Palace to be reconstructed so easily at Sydenham, following the success of the Great Exhibition which was housed in the original building in Hyde Park in 1851.
Towering either side of the Palace building were two huge, glass, water towers, which fed the large fountains that were located in the adjoining park. These vast towers were prominent local landmarks in their own right and can be clearly seen dominating the skyline in Zola’s photographs of nearby Westow Hill. It is interesting to note that many of Zola’s photographs feature young ladies riding their cycles along the Norwood streets. It is obvious that he found the ladies of Norwood very attractive as he wrote “They are very elegant, they are charming on a bicycle…” That he was captivated by the female cyclists of the neighbourhood is clear to see as so many of his photographs taken around the Crystal Palace feature them, either riding along the almost deserted roads, or pushing their bikes up the hills leading to the Palace.
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