Historical Background

Paxton as Designer

On June 20th 1850 Joseph Paxton delivered his original design of the Crystal Palace to the Industrial Exhibition's executive committee. Only two weeks had passed since the building commission had introduced a clause to allow Paxton to submit a design. Controversy swirled around the exhibition as Col. Charles de L.Waldo Sibthorp's concern over the destruction of elm trees prompted the Times to question the sanity of constructing any permanent structure on the Hyde Park site. The commissioners responded by requesting that Paxton alter his design to include a barrel vaulted transcept that would cover and save the elms. (fig. 1) The Industrial Exhibitions opening day was less than a year away on May 1st 1851. The Crystal Palace design received popular approval in the press. All other proposed designs for the exhibition building were monolithic masonry and could not be completed in time for the scheduled opening. With no other reasonable plan at hand the building commission accepted Paxton's design with the provision the building be removed from Hyde Park by June 1st 1852.

As the foundations were being laid, Paxton's lack of architecture or engineering credentials drew criticism regarding the stability and safety of his design. The design is in essence an elaborately scaled copy of the Duke of Devonshire's Chatsworth Conservatory. Paxton designed the conservatory while employed as a gardener. In response to the criticism all iron girders were tested on site prior to installation. The testing required only 4 minutes per girder. Wooden cross bracing was added to visually reassure visitors the wrought iron trusses were sturdy and could withstand the load of the thousands of anticipated visitors. (fig. 2 and 3) Paxton's reliance on his previous conservatory design with its glass enclosure influenced the details of all the Crystal Palace's building systems.