Former International Exhibition Hall and 'People's Palace'. Rebuilt 1873-5 by John Johnson and Alfred Meeson following fire damage to the first building of 1868-73 by the same architects. Built by Kelk and Lucas. Restored 1980-88, following second fire in 1980, by the Alexandra Palace Development team led by Dr Peter Smith. Various C20 alterations before the second fire.
The former Alexandra Palace Station building of 1873 stands immediately to N of the Palace. No platforms or other associated structures survive.
Reasons for Designation
Alexandra Palace and the former Alexandra Palace Railway Station are designated at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
* Historic interest: a rare survival of a large-scale Victorian exhibition and entertainment complex, and for the surviving BBC studios where the world's first high-definition television programme was transmitted in 1936; also the complete set of Victorian stage machinery in the theatre;
* Architectural interest: for the surviving Victorian fabric and internal spaces, as described above
* The former railway station has special interest as a well-detailed building in the Italianate style, and for close historical associations with Alexandra Palace; it has strong visual group value with Alexandra Palace
The spectacular success of the Great Exhibition of 1851 inspired similar events worldwide. The idea of a 'People's Palace' in north London was propagated by the architect Owen Jones (1809-76) who had designed much of the interior décor of Paxton's Crystal Palace. Although his plans for a vast iron and glass building never materialised (mainly on grounds of cost), in 1863, after five or six years' planning, a former dairy farm on high ground between Muswell Hill, Wood Green and Hornsey began to be developed by the Alexandra Park Co Ltd as a north London rival to the Crystal Palace. The building from the Great International Exhibition of 1862 was then being dismantled in South Kensington, and this was acquired by the company, although financial difficulties delayed its re-erection. Work did not actually begin until 1868 when parts of that structure, designed by Captain Fowke, were reused in the new building designed by Alfred Meeson and John Johnson. Only in 1873 did the Alexandra Palace open as 'The Peoples' Palace', a recreation centre and visitor attraction for north Londoners. This was serviced by a new railway line from Highgate Station which terminated at a station alongside the north terrace. Two weeks later the palace was virtually destroyed by fire. A replacement building opened two years later, also designed by Meeson and Johnson. Covering seven acres it was centred on the Great Hall with its immense steam-powered Willis Organ, while four corner towers each supported 16,000 gallon water tanks supplied by steam pumps from the New River Company's reservoirs.
Palace and park faced successive financial difficulties, closure and changes in ownership. The theatre/music hall had been unsuccessful from the outset, partly due to poor sight lines and acoustics. No provision was made for moving scenery on or off stage. A mechanised timber stage was designed and installed by the Grieve family of stage carpenters and scenic artists and was ingeniously adapted to compensate for the idiosyncrasies of the theatre design. The theatre however only began to return a profit once film shows were introduced in the early 1900s, which also attracted more people to the palace complex as a whole. The Palace closed during the Great War; during this time it was initially used to house refugees, including those coming from Belgium, and later for the internment of German prisoners of war. The theatre was refurbished under the management of W Macqueen-Pope and reopened in 1922, but it ceased to be used as a cinema the following year when it was leased to Archie Pitt - Gracie Fields' first husband - who used the stage for rehearsals.
The BBC's involvement with Alexandra Palace dates from June 1935 when it leased the eastern part of the building - 31,840 sq ft within the south-east wing and a further 24,525 sq ft comprising the theatre and associated rooms - following advice from the government-backed Television Advisory Committee that it was the most suitable site for the development of high-definition television, including the testing of two rival systems. To facilitate broadcasting, the cupola on the south-east tower was removed and a 225 ft lattice mast was erected, which gave an aerial height of 460 ft above sea level. Below, the tower was converted to offices and the colonnade arches were bricked up. On the ground floor two former coffee rooms became transmitter halls for the two companies, while the tea room between them housed the shared transmitter. The first floor was converted to two studios separated by control rooms and rooms for film scanning, with dressing and make-up rooms across a corridor. Test transmissions took place in August 1936.
On 2 November 1936 the BBC introduced the first, regular, high-definition, 405-line television service in the world. Before that there had been episodic low-definition broadcasting in Britain and elsewhere, for instance in the USA and Germany. Later advances also took place there: tele-recording, colour broadcasting, the launch of the Open University, and video tape demonstrations.
Studio A was equipped with the relatively well-developed Marconi-EMI television system employing four Emitron cameras, Studio B with the more experimental and varied equipment installed by Baird Television Ltd. In January 1937 the decision was taken to adopt the Marconi-EMI system as the London Television Standard for the future of television. The Baird equipment was removed and by September Marconi-EMI equipment was in Studio B too. At the same time a Central Control Room was constructed in the former Baird Control Room to enable all programme sources - from the two studios, outside broadcasts, and film channels - to be controlled separately. Almost immediately technical and production standards improved, and over the next two years the annual number of hours of television broadcast grew fourfold to over 900 hours in 1938. With this came an expansion in set ownership, which on the outbreak of war stood at 20,000 sets.
The BBC Television Service shut down two days before war was declared in September 1939, closing with a Mickey Mouse cartoon. Transmitters were adapted to radio counter-measures against German bombers, using settings derived from Enigma intercepts to jam or 'bend' German navigational radio beams known as the 'Knickebein', and later the X- and Y-Gerät Systems, thereby giving important protection to London and the Home Counties from Luftwaffe attacks, notably during the Blitz. This was one of a number of installations for this purpose.
Broadcasting resumed on the day of the Victory parade on 7 June 1946, and although take up was slow due to post-war conditions, there were technical advances such as the recording of outside events which, for instance, allowed film of the 1953 coronation to be rushed by plane to America. After the BBC acquired the former Gainsborough film studios in Lime Grove, Shepherd's Bush, Alexandra Palace closed as a production centre, apparently for good, in 1954. However, it reopened months later as the home of BBC TV News, which it remained until 1969, colour television being launched in 1967. Then, until 1981, Alexandra Palace was from where the Open University was broadcast.
In 1980 a second major fire seriously damaged the Palace (only Palm Court and the area occupied by the BBC escaped damage). After restoration of the central hall and west end the Palace reopened in 1988.
The former Alexandra Palace railway station was the terminus of a short branch line from Highgate station and stands immediately adjacent to the north-west of the Palace. It was built by the Muswell Hill Railway and opened in 1873 along with the Palace. In 1911 the line was taken over by the Great Northern Railway (GNR), becoming part of the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) in 1923. In 1935 London Underground planned to take over the line from LNER together with the LNER's routes from Finsbury Park to Edgware and High Barnet, modernise it for use with electric trains and amalgamate it with the Northern Line. Works were completed from Highgate to High Barnet and Mill Hill East and that section was incorporated into the Northern Line, but further works on the Highgate and Alexandra Palace section were postponed and the line continued under the operation of the LNER. Wartime economies meant that services were reduced to rush hours only, so that after the war the dwindling passenger numbers and a shortage of funds lead to the cancellation of the unfinished works. Passenger services to Alexandra Palace station and the other stations on the line ceased on 3 July 1954.
Alexandra Park is included in the English Heritage Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest.
MATERIALS: cast-iron and steel columns with walls of white Huntingdon and yellow stock brick embellished with patterned red brickwork in the Italianate style. Classical mouldings and ornaments such as cornices, volutes, keystones, lions' heads etc. made of Portland cement.
PLAN: the Palace covers about seven and a half acres. Symmetrical plan about a great central hall which corresponds with the central transept of the original building and runs between the north and south frontispieces that survived from that building. Flanking the great hall were an Italian garden to the west and an exhibition hall to the east, beyond them were two conservatories. The entire south front was occupied by refreshment rooms including a large banqueting hall; the corresponding spaces on the north front held a concert room and a large theatre. Most of the internal walls defining this plan survive, but the roofs have been replaced, and open areas roofed over. The concert hall and refreshment rooms have gone. The theatre auditorium to the north east and the BBC studios to the south, adapted from former refreshment rooms in 1935, survive.
EXTERIOR: north elevation: Least fire-damaged area. Central frontispiece with pedimented gable and large, recessed rose window (now blocked) above entrance porch which connected to the approach from the former railway station.
East and west elevations: entrance fronts and vestibules behind largely rebuilt 1980-88 following original form and reusing structural ironwork in part. Palm Court entrance, now main public entrance, to west has pedimented gable and arcaded ground floor.
South elevation: central pedimented and gabled frontispiece with large recessed rose window (reinstated after fire) above entrance porch. Patterned brickwork in gable. Arch flanked by tall three-light windows separated by half columns with segmental pediment above. Two storey, fifteen bay colonnade either side, divided into three sections and terminating in square towers. The upper colonnade is arched with stone columns, the lower has flat arches resting on brick piers. The tower at the south east corner was adapted in 1935 to house offices and studios for the BBC with metal canted bays and the addition of a tall steel latticed girder mast on top.
INTERIOR: survival of the original interior is patchy. The principal areas of interest lie in the eastern part of the building: the theatre auditorium in the north east and the television studios in the BBC wing in the south east corner. The theatre auditorium has fittings of interest dating from 1875. These include a balcony to the rear, a large raked stage, a proscenium with niches and, below the stage, a complete set of Victorian stage machinery designed by Messrs Grieve and Son. The machinery comprises a series of wooden bridges, traps, pulleys and levers to enable large scene transformations in pantomime and melodrama, and the projection of props and actors onto the stage. It is the most pristine example in the country and therefore of particular special interest. Neoclassical decoration on either side of the auditorium dates from the 1920s when W Macqueen-Pope was manager. The former BBC studios 'A' and 'B' have historic rather than architectural interest. A significant feature in studio 'A' is the glazed control room or 'gallery'. Some original doors to the studios with brass porthole windows survive. To west of the studios the original staircase survives with ramped wooden handrail, turned balusters and chamfered newel posts. Some original cast-iron columns with capitals survive on the ground floor in this part of the building. Some areas of the Palace have been demolished and are therefore of no interest; these are the unroofed spaces at the south west and north west corners, and the area occupied by the skating rink. The Great Hall has been renewed sympathetically following its almost total destruction in the 1980 fire. The columns and glazed roof were not reinstated; instead a new pitched roof slung below tubular lattice girders was constructed, with a ceiling of tensioned acoustic fabric imitating a barrel vault. It is the overall spatial quality of this interior and that of the west hall which are of interest. The original Willis organ, restored in the 1980s, stands to the north of the Great Hall. The Palm Court to the west, originally a conservatory, escaped serious fire damage, has cast-iron columns and piers with foliated capitals. Roof has been reglazed.
FORMER RAILWAY STATION: now a community centre. The style is Italianate to complement that of the Palace. Small, single-storey building with gabled cross wing and pitched slate roof, built in white bricks with red brick banding and dressings. Round-headed keyed windows linked by string courses; segmental headed entrance. Rusticated angle piers. Cross wing has roundel in gable and moulded brick parapet. Moulded brick chimney stacks. The interior has no features of interest.
This list entry was subject to a Minor Enhancement on 4 September 2023 to amend the description and to reformat the text to current standards