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The Alexandra Palace and Theatre, Alexandra Palace Way, Muswell Hill and Wood Green, London

Introduction and first building of 1868 - Official Opening in 1873 - The Second and Present Building of 1875 - The Alexandra Palace's Surviving but Long Hidden Victorian Theatre

A Google StreetView Image of the Alexandra Palace - Click to Interact

Above - A Google StreetView Image of the Alexandra Palace - Click to Interact

 

The Alexandra Palace, and its vast park, situated high up and looking over a great swathe of London, was first proposed in the 1860s and the original idea by Owen Jones was to use parts of the building created for the Great Exhibition of 1862, in South Kensington, in its construction, much like the recreation of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham. Work on the Alexandra Palace by the Great Northern Palace Company was soon begun, but was then abandoned for a considerable time, until it was finally completed in 1868. Soon afterwards announcements were made that the building would soon be opened, and its acoustic properties were even tested, but the building didn't open, and only a few races were held in its adjoining park. According to the ERA of the time, when the races were over 'the gates were closed again, the doors were shut, and all became silent deserted and forlorn, both within and without the building'.

A sketch of the proposed Alexandra Palace in 1872

Above - A sketch of the proposed Alexandra Palace in 1872

A Programme for the 'Grand Opening Festival' of the Alexandra Palace on Saturday the 24th of May 1873 - Click to see the whole Programme.However, eventually the building was reawakened and the Alexandra Palace was finally opened for the first time on Saturday the 24th of May 1873, although it was not to last long as it burned down just 16 days later. Only the outer walls of the building survived the fire and three members of its staff were killed. There's more on this, and the rebuilding and reopening of the Alexandra Palace in 1875 below but first some more information on the first building.

The original Alexandra Palace was constructed by Kelk and Lucas to the designs of the architects Alfred Meeson and John Johnson, and opened for the first time on Saturday the 24th of May 1873. The building itself was of an Italian design, with 'arabesque decorations in blue, grey, and gold, on a ground of chocolate brown'.

Right - A Programme for the 'Grand Opening Festival' of the Alexandra Palace on Saturday the 24th of May 1873 - Click to see the whole Programme.

At the East end of the Alexandra Palace of 1873 there was a large Theatre, the ERA reported on this in their may the 4th 1873 edition saying:- 'Entering the building at the north-east transept the visitor will find himself in a Theatre, whose extraordinary proportions may be guessed when we state that it is designed to accommodate 10,000 spectators. The stage is fitted with all the modern improvements, including a lock-iron for preventing accidents with the traps. The proscenium opening of the stage is 36 feet wide by 37 feet high. The extreme width is 85 feet. The inaugural piece will be a ballet spectacle, invented by Mr Milano; Mr Weist Hill will supply the music, and Messrs Grieve and Son the scenery. We must not forget to add that between the proscenium and the archway over it there is to be a large fresco, painted by Mr J. Absolon.' - The ERA May 4th 1873.

The Illustrated London News reported on the opening of the Alexandra Palace in their 31st of May 1873 edition saying:- 'The opening, last Saturday, of the Alexandra Palace and Park, at Muswell-hill, beyond Hornsey, on the north side of London, was a pleasant festival to many thousands of visitors. This new place of public entertainment, as most of our readers know, is the property of a limited liability Company; the chairman and directors are Mr. H. Gruning, and Messrs. J. Goodson, C. and T. Lucas, C. Magnay, and M. J. Power.

 

The opening of the Alexandra Palace - From the Illustrated London News, 31st of May 1873.The grounds are situated in the most agreeable part of Middlesex, exactly six miles from Charing-cross, but amidst rural scenery of delightful freshness, variety, and beauty. They have an extent of 220 acres, laid out in park and garden, on the summit of a range of green hills, adorned with flourishing oaks and elms, which commands on every side, north and south, east and west, views that cannot be surpassed in the neighbourhood of town. Hornsey, Wood Green, Eeast Barnet, Totteridge, Finchley, and Highgate turn their best aspects towards the Alexandra Park and there are several openings for a more distant view reaching far into Essex and Kent; but one scarcely wishes to look beyond the verdant slopes and well-wooded rising grounds of this vicinity. The entire estate here belonging to the Company is 600 acres, the greater part of which is reserved for building mansions or villas.

Left - The opening of the Alexandra Palace - From the Illustrated London News, 31st of May 1873.

The Alexandra Palace has been constructed by Messrs. Kelk and Lucas, from the designs of Messrs. Meeson and Johnson, architects. It is an edifice stately and dignified, as well as elegant, in the characteristic forms it presents, both outside and inside. The plan is that of a nave with three transepts, the centre being surmounted by a dome, 170 ft. in diameter and 220 ft. in height; the length of the nave is 900 ft., or half that of the Crystal Palace at Sydenham; the central transept is 430 ft. long; the other two transepts are each 320 ft. long; the breadth of the nave and of each of the three transepts is 85 ft.

The architectural style is Italian, with arabesque decorations in blue, grey, and gold, on a ground of chocolate brown. The lighting is not from the roof overhead, but from ample side ranges of lofty windows, and from two gorgeously coloured large round windows of painted glass, at opposite ends of the nave. Stone coffers and vases of ornamental design, containing a variety of flowering shrubs and plants, alternate with statues, or groups of sculpture on pedestals, along the nave.

The whole interior, nave and transepts, is surrounded by a series of galleries. The grand organ, above the orchestra in the central transept, is an instrument of great size and musical power, constructed by Mr. H. Willis, under the superintendence of Sir Michael Costa. In the north transept there is, at its west end, a spacious and commodious concert-hall, with another organ; at its east end a theatre nearly as big as that of Drury Lane.

These arrangements show the nature of some of the indoor recreations to be provided for visitors, in addition to flower shows and fruit shows, bird shows, cat shows, the picture galleries, and different collections of works of art, of antiquities, or of natural curiosities, to be varied from time to time. A marine aquarium is to be formed; horse shows, dog shows, pigeon-races, athletic sports, archery-matches, cricket-matches, and displays of fireworks are to take place on the grounds; and the Alexandra Park races, in July and September, will be run over a course of one mile and a furlong, with a very handsome grand stand for spectators.

We shall probably have frequent occasion to notice or record these proceedings, and other fashionable or popular gatherings at the Alexandra Park, beginning with the series of six opera concerts, the first of which was given on Thursday last. The entertainments of Saturday consisted first of a flower show in the nave, which was a very pretty sight, whether on close inspection or viewed from the gallery at either end, and a grand concert afterwards in the central transept, which is mentioned in our report of musical performances. It must be confessed that a large portion of the assembled company were unable to hear the music, but we trust they all enjoyed themselves in one way or another.

The new line of railway from King's-cross to the Alexandra Palace is most convenient, giving access to it by a station platform directly beneath the main entrance, with an ascent by few steps to the central transept, as at the High Level Station of the Crystal Palace.'

The above text in quotes was first published in The Illustrated London News, 31st of May 1873.

 

The 1875 and Present Alexandra Palace

A Google StreetView Image of the Alexandra Palace - Click to Interact

Above - A Google StreetView Image of the Alexandra Palace - Click to Interact

The Alexandra Palace first opened on Saturday the 24th of May 1873, but it burned down just 16 days later. The fire was so intense that only the outer walls of the building survived, and three members of its staff were killed. Undeterred however, reconstruction of the building was soon started and on Saturday the 1st of May 1875 the Alexandra Palace was reopened to an eager public.

The Building News and Engineering Journal carried a plan and report on the soon to be opened Alexandra Palace in their February 6th 1874 edition saying:- 'The ground-plan which we give is a copy of that from which the Alexandra Palace is now being built, the works being in rapid progress. The scheme of the present plan is totally different from that of the former palace. A "great hall," 336ft. long and 189ft. wide, with a grand orchestra and organ at the west end, occupies the central position, to the left and right of which are large open courts, each 209ft. by 142ft., with fountains and ornamental gardens, beyond which, and extending to the north and south entrances, are conservatories.

A Ground Plan of the Alexandra Palace - From the Building News and Engineering Journal, February 6th 1874.

Above - A Ground Plan of the Alexandra Palace - From the Building News and Engineering Journal, February 6th 1874. Top Left can be seen the Concert Hall, and Top Right the Theatre.

The theatre, 156ft. by 83ft., with all rooms appertaining thereto, is situated at the north-west corner of the building, while the concert-room is similarly planned on the south west corner. Exhibition galleries flank both the theatre and concert-room, and are connected with the open courts.

The refreshment department is on two floors right and left of the great hall, and extending beyond it the whole east front of the palace. The material employed in the construction is chiefly iron, and the style of architecture that generally chosen for such buildings, depending more on the massing than detail for effect. The architect is Mr. John Johnson, of 14, Buckingham-street, Strand. The builders are Messrs. Kelk and Lucas.'

The above text in quotes was first published in the Building News and Engineering Journal, February 6th 1874.

The Western Mail also reported on the rebuilt Alexandra Palace in their 30th of May 1875 edition saying:- 'On Saturday next will be opened the new Alexandra Palace, near London. It is not yet two years since the magnificent edifice which formerly occupied that site was reduced to ashes. Those who now visit Muswell Hill, and who last did so towards the middle or end of 1873, must be forcibly reminded of the fabled Phoenix, for on the site of what was then ruin and desolation has arisen an edifice of fair, we cannot say of grander, proportions.

The absence of the dome produces a tameness in the general effect, but the roof of the present palace is agreeably relieved by corner towers and a transverse portion running across the centre of the roof. The grounds are beautifully laid out, the tout ensemble forming one of the prettiest pieces of landscape gardening we have seen.

The large central hall in the building will seat 12,000 persons, and there is accommodation in the orchestra for 2,000 performers. So far as they have been tested, the acoustics have proved satisfactory. At the northwest end of the building is a concert room capable of containing 3,500 of an audience, and opposite a theatre seated for 3,000.

In the concert room is an organ constructed by Mr. Henry Willis, the builder of the celebrated organ in St. George's Hall, at Liverpool, and of those in the Royal Albert Hall and St Paul's Cathedral. It possesses five claviers. The compass of the four manual claviers extends from CC to C in altissimo (five complete octaves, or sixty-one notes), and that of the pedal from CCC to G (two octaves and a fifth, or 32 notes). The pedal organ consists of 16 stops; the first manual clavier, or choir organ, comprises 17 stops; the second clavier, or great organ, commands 21 stops; the third clavier, or swell organ, contains 21 stops; and the fourth clavier, or solo organ, includes 14 stops; and besides these, there are 15 accessories connecting the different parts of the instrument. To enable the performer to command these stops and accessories them are eight patent pneumatic combination pistons to each manual clavier. The main bellows is placed in a chamber in the basement. The feeders which supply the air are worked by two steam-engines, one of 8-horse and the other of 12 horse power, nominal. These feeders are of the most ample size, and constructed to receive their wind from the hall above, and not from the locality in which they are placed. To carry out this arrangement (of the highest importance), passages are provided for the wind shafts to and from the organ to the chamber in which the main reservoirs are placed. The main reservoirs deliver their wind to numerous other reservoirs in immediate connection with the pipes, for the purpose of acquiring the various pressures of air required for the different classes of stops.

With an organ such as has been described, and the daily performances by the band of the Palace Company, the concert-room ought to prove a favourite resort. Numerous and varied additional attractions are promised. These, however, will be dealt with in detail after they have been seen.'

The above text in quotes was first published in The Western Mail, 30th of May 1875.

The Alexandra Palace - From the 'Premier Photographic View Album of London' 1907

Above - The Alexandra Palace - From the 'Premier Photographic View Album of London' 1907

The ERA reported on the opening of the Alexandra Palace in their 25th of May 1875 edition saying:- 'The Queen's birthday brought with it Queen's weather - by which term we have agreed to mean a brilliant sun whose heat is tempered by balmy breezes. In such weather the Alexandra Park and Palace were yesterday thrown open to the public, attracting not fewer than 20,000 visitors, every one or whom wished, we have little doubt, that at length success may be in store for an undertaking which promises to place within reach of Londoners another charming retreat from the cares of business; where the eye may be delighted with Nature dressed in her most picturesque garb; where the ear may be enchanted with the concord of sweet sounds; and where the mind may be elevated by the contemplation of the choicest works of art which time, trouble, and liberal expenditure may be able to bring together.

It would be somewhat late in the day to inform our readers that the Alexandra Palace is situated in one of the most charming spots of which our Home Counties can boast, and that the hills on which it stands, well named the "Northern Heights of London," command a view which equals in beauty, if indeed it does not excel, that to be obtained from the rival establishment at Sydenham. With the origin of the Palace and with its hitherto unfortunate career everybody, we imagine, is by this time acquainted. Brighter days seem at length to have come; the right men have bean discovered, and now fill the right places; all concerned in the undertaking have put their shoulders to the wheel with a will, and the result, judging by yesterday's proceedings, will be as satisfactory as can be desired.

We have recently placed on record in these columns a sketch of the attractive programme the directors have arranged for the season, now so auspiciously commenced. To this at present we shall not make further allusion, but shall give, for the benefit of those who unfortunately were not present, an outline of the inaugural events.

At ten o'clock the park was thrown open, and its broad slopes were soon dotted with gaily-dressed pleasure-seekers, who found plenty to occupy their attention in the magnificent views of country which met their gaze wherever they turned, or in inspecting the admirably arranged racecourse and its commodius grand stand, which forms so conspicuous an object in the lower portion of the park. At twelve o'clock the Palace itself was opened, and that without ceremony, if we may except the firing of a salvo of bombs, whose roar we interpreted to be in honour of her Majesty's birthday as much as an announcement of the great event of the day.

The two great attractions of the festival were an International Flower Show and a Grand Concert. Of the first we may say that a more brilliant display has never yet been witnessed, the whole length of the nave presenting a tout ensemble which will not readily be forgotten by those who saw it. The extent of the show may be guessed when we state that it comprised not fewer than seventy classes for flowers and twenty for fruit. Here were azaleas one mass of blossom; exotic orchids which sent us home envious of their owners; roses which shed their fragrance far and near; pelargoniums, tree ferns, stove and green-house plants; to say nothing - and we could say much, did space permit - of a choice array of cut flowers, of pansies, and of wedding and opera bouquets.

Among the professionals who secured the principal prizes - which, by the way, were valued at £1,200 - we noticed such eminent names as Williams, of Upper Holloway; Rollisson and Sons, Tooting; Jackson and Son, Kingston; J. T. Peacock, Hammersmith; C. Turner, Slough; Veitch and Co., Chelsea; and Paul and Son, Cheshunt; while among amateurs the competition was keen, and the marvellous beauty of the specimens exhibited must have taxed the discriminative powers of the judges to no small degree.

But then the fruit! Our very mouth waters as we think of it. It was cruel to place such deliciously juicy jewels in our way and to forbid us to taste. What grapes were there! what cherries! what pineapples! what peaches! what strawberries! what - but why pursue the tantalising subject any further? We looked and we longed, and what we confess of ourselves was true of everybody else. There was one dish in front of which lay a placard bearing the statement "This fruit may be cut." It had been cut with a vengeance. It was all gone, and everybody who came near passed on with the exclamation "How provoking." The most successful competitors in this part of the show were the gardeners to Lord Carington, the Earl of Fortescue, and the Duke of Hamilton.

Come we now to the concert. This took place at three o'clock in the centre transept, where were assembled a splendid band and chorus, numbering about 1,000 performers, under the direction of Sir Michael Costa, whose appearance was the signal for a storm of cheers. The principal artistes were Mdlles Titiens, Carola, Macvitz, Madame Trebelli-Bettini; Signor Campanini, Signor Borella, and Signor Agnesi. The programme, which was a long and admirably-selected one, of course opened with the National Anthem, and the gems of the concert may be chronicled as follows, viz., the aria "Miei rampolli" (Cenerentola), given by Signor Borella with all that quaint humour which has made him so prominent a favourite with the music-loving public; "I will extol thee," from the conductor's oratorio Eli, so brilliantly sung by Mdlle Carola as to elicit an encore which was not to be resisted; the "Inflammatus" (Stabat Mater), magnificently rendered by Mdlle Titiens and the full choir; the well known "M'appari" (Marta), which secured for Signor Campanini, who was in excellent voice, the honour of a recall; and the duo "Se fiato in corpo avete" (Matrimonio Segreto), amusingly interpreted by Signor Agnesi and Signor Borella. The company's choir, we should add, was on this occasion strengthened by members of the Sacred Harmonic Society, Her Majesty's Opera, &c., the band also being considerably augmented. The day's arrangements also included performances by Mr F. Archer on the grand organ, which has been erected under the superintendence of Sir Michael Costa by Mr Henry Willis.

The Concert Hall, which has been built in the north-west transept, and which is to be capable of seating 8,000 persons, is not yet completed, and was not open yesterday. Nor did any performance take place on the stage of the great Theatre, concerning which we have already given some particulars. The curtain, however, was up, and we had an opportunity of admiring a charming piece of landscape scenery, the work, we imagine, of Meessrs Grieve and Son. The Theatre next week will, to use an expressive phrase, be "in full swing," for here on Monday we are promised a grand spectacle in three tableaux entitled Azurine; or, the Spirit of the Waters. When we say that Mdlle Sangalli, of whose ability we have already had an opportunity of judging, has been engaged as premiere danseuse, and that the whole of the spectacle will be under the able direction of Mr J. Milano, we have said enough to assure everybody that the entertainment will be of a most attractive character.

The picture galleries yesterday were literally thronged, and, indeed, at this there was little cause for wonder. It is to the spirit of a gentleman whose name we are not permitted to mention that this really delightful collection has been brought together here for the delectation of the public. The most noticeable feature in connection with it is its thoroughly representative character, some of the best works of such modern masters as Leslie, Gilbert, Cox, Frith, Elmore, Millais, Maclise, Turner &c., finding places on the walls. Here are the means of gratification worth twenty times the sum charged for admission to the Palace, and we have little doubt that the picture gallery will prove one of the most popular of its numerous attractions.

A peep at the tapestry room will send the curious in such matters away as astonished as delighted. To the liberality of Mr G. Attenborough we owe this choice exhibition of work which, it is estimated, is about 400 years old, and the brilliant beauty of whose colours and designs time has not been able to efface. The subjects are chiefly taken from the career of Scipio, and both in execution and conception we may fairly say that better specimens of tapestry work have never come before our notice.

The sculpture within the building will be found to well repay inspection. It has been entirely arranged under the guidance of M. Brucianni, and embraces some of the finest existing specimens from the Louvre, the Vatican, the British Museum, &c. Within the limits at our disposal we are not able to do justice to this and many other departments which deserve, and in due course will receive, proper consideration.

To say that the interior arrangements of the Palace are complete would be to state that which is not. The rapidity, however, with which order has been brought out of chaos, reflects not a little credit on Mr Redgrave, the Manager, and upon his little army of assistants. The refreshment department, as already announced, is in the very competent hands or Messrs Bertram and Roberts. These gentlemen were tried for a number of years at the Crystal Palace, and were never found wanting. Here they are sure to add to their laurels, and we may hint the fact, which will be very acceptable to the public, that their prices are as moderate as it is possible to make them, and that the presence within the Palace of a thirsty soul is not made the excuse for charging him double what he would have to pay outside. The faith which the public have in these caterers was shown in the eagerness with which their "bars" were beseiged, and by the host of hungry ones who betook themselves to the grand banqueting all in the grounds, and there regaled themselves with all the delicacies of the season which their purses could afford.

For the benefit of those who are not partial to climbing hills we may mention that the new station, which brings the visitor to the very doors of the centre transept, is now open, and that yesterday the traffic over the new line, which runs through a remarkably pretty country was conducted without the slightest hitch or accident. We cannot conclude this rapid sketch of the inaugural festival without a word of thanks in acknowledgment of the courtesy experienced by the representatives of the Press at the hands of the Messrs Trendell.'

The above text in quotes was first published in the ERA, 25th of May 1875.

A Google StreetView Image of the Alexandra Palace showing the BBCs Radio and Television Mast - Click to Interact

Above - A Google StreetView Image of the Alexandra Palace showing the BBCs Radio and Television Mast - Click to Interact

The rebuilt Alexandra Palace opened on Saturday the 1st of May 1875 and went on to have a long and distinguished career. Over the years it has been put to many different uses but it is probably best remembered today as being the home of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) who began broadcasting their 'high definition television service' from the Palace in 1936. Although the BBC soon had other buildings to work from they continued to use the Alexandra Palace for years afterwards, and their radio and television mast which dominates the building is still in use today (see image above). The BBC's original television studios A and B are still inside the building along with their galleries.

The Alexandra Palace Theatre

The Alexandra Palace Theatre - Courtesy APPCT Alexandra Palace

Above - The Alexandra Palace Theatre - Courtesy APPCT Alexandra Palace

The Alexandra Palace's huge Victorian Theatre, designed by John Johnson, and originally opened as the People's Palace, is also still in situ, along with its original stage equipment and machinery, although it has been empty and abandoned for 36 years at the time of writing in 2016, and unused as a Theatre for over 80 years. Some more images of the Theatre can be seen here, and on the Theatres Trust site here.

A Ground Plan showing the Alexandra Palace Theatre - From the Building News and Engineering Journal, February 6th 1874.

Above - A Ground Plan showing the Alexandra Palace Theatre - From the Building News and Engineering Journal, February 6th 1874.

The Alexandra Palace was granted a Grade II Listed Building status in 1996 and various projects for its refurbishment have come and gone over the years, but in 2015 the Alexandra Park and Palace Charitable Trust (APPCT) was awarded £18.8 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund towards restoring the Theatre and the old BBC Television Studios at the eastern end of the building.

The refurbishment is proposed to be finished by 2018, and the Theatre, which will be able to accommodate some 1,300 people when it is reopened, is proposed to be used for plays, films, comedy, and musical productions. In the refurbished Television Studios people will be able to learn about the history of British Television.

The total cost of the project is projected to be around £26.7 million, and will be funded by £18.8 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund, £6.8 million from Haringey Council, and a final £1 million from the APPCT Trust and its fund-raising, which has several ways in which people can donate, from inclusion on a donors’ board to sponsoring theatre seats.

Above - A video showcasing the Alexandra Palace Theatre and the plans to 'Bring it back to life' - Courtesy APPCT Alexandra Palace.

The APPCT Trust's Press Release says:- 'The theatre is an incredible piece of theatrical history, the existence of which is not widely known. It remains frozen in time, with much of the original décor and rare stage machinery still in place. It was created to showcase opera, musicals, plays and all kinds of entertainment – ‘wonder and spectacle’ for the people. It even hosted early cinema screenings... Working in conjunction with award-winning architects Studios and leading theatre designers Charcoalblue, the restoration plans will create an adaptable performance space for an audience of up to 1,300, while retaining the original character and feel of the theatre.' - The APPCT Trust.

Full information on how to help the APPCT Trust secure the final £1 million towards the Theatre's restoration can be found here, but in brief, every donation received will go directly towards the theatre’s restoration and will receive a permanent tribute for playing a part in transforming Alexandra Palace. A donation of £25 or more, will receive a credit on the donor board in the restored East Court; £100 gets both a name on the donor board and an exclusive preview tour of the theatre ahead of its public unveiling; £450 buys a plaque with your chosen name on one of the retractable seats in the stalls, as well as the donor board and preview tour and for £900 the theatre will place a plaque with your chosen name on the back of one of the fixed seats in the theatre circle.

The Alexandra Palace Theatre - Courtesy APPCT Alexandra Palace

Above - The Alexandra Palace Theatre - Courtesy APPCT Alexandra Palace

The Theatres Trust says that:- 'Alexandra Palace bears witness to the vitality and exploration of the overlapping specialities of architecture, civil engineering, building and decorative arts in Victorian London. The Theatre is one of the most architecturally significant and historic parts of the entertainment complex and the auditorium remains remarkably intact, making it one of the oldest now surviving in London and is architecturally, historically and archaeologically of rare interest. The Trust is pleased to support the refurbishment of this important historic theatre to bring it back in to public use.' - The Theatres Trust.

You may like to visit the Alexandra Palace's own website here, and full details of the restoration of the Theatre and Television Studios can be found here. The APPCT Trust's fund-raising page can be found here.

 

Above - The 2012 Film Anna Karenina was shot at the Alexandra Palace Theatre. This video describes the use of the Theatre in the film. The film stars Keira Knightley and Jude Law. Screenplay by Tom Stoppard, Production Design by Sara Greenwood, Novel by Leo Tolstoy.

If you have any more information or images for this Theatre that you are willing to share please Contact me.

Archive newspaper reports on this page were collated and kindly sent in for inclusion by B.F.

 

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