Original Alexandra Palace on fire in 1873
The "Palace of the People" was conceived by Owen Jones in 1859. The Great Northern Palace Company had been established by 1860, but was initially unable to raise financing for the construction of the Palace. Construction materials were acquired and recycled from the large 1862 International Exhibition building in South Kensington after it was demolished: the Government had declined to take it over. In 1863 Alexandra Park Co. Ltd. acquired the land of Tottenham Wood Farm for conversion to a park and to build the People’s Palace. Alexandra Park was opened to the public on 23 July 1863. The planned building was originally named "The Palace of the People"; it and its park were renamed to commemorate the popular new Princess of Wales, Alexandra of Denmark, who had married Prince Edward on 10 March 1863. The Palace of the People, or the People's Palace, remained as alternative names. In September 1865, construction commenced but to a design by John Johnson and Alfred Meeson rather than the glass structure initially proposed by Jones.
In 1871, work started on the Edgware, Highgate and London Railway to connect the site to Highgate station. Work on both the railway and the palace was completed in 1873 and, on 24 May of that year, Alexandra Palace and Park was opened. The structure covers some 7.5 acres (3.0 ha). The palace was built by Kelk and Lucas, who also built the Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington at around the same time. Sims Reeves sang on the opening day before an audience of 102,000. Only 16 days later, Alexandra Palace was destroyed by a fire which also killed three members of staff. Only the outer walls survived; a loan exhibition of a collection of English pottery and porcelain, comprising some 4,700 items of historic and intrinsic value, was also destroyed.
With typical Victorian vigour, it was quickly rebuilt and reopened on 1 May 1875. The new Alexandra Palace contained a concert hall, art galleries, a museum, lecture hall, library, banqueting room and large theatre. The stage of the theatre incorporated machinery which enabled special effects for the pantomimes and melodramas then popular – artists could disappear, reappear and be propelled into the air. The theatre was also used for political meetings. An open-air swimming pool was constructed at the base of the hill in the surrounding park; it is long since closed and little trace remains except some reeds. The grounds included a horse racing course with grandstand (named Alexandra Park Racecourse and nicknamed the "Frying Pan" and the "Pan Handle" because of its layout), which was London's only racecourse from 1868 until its closure in 1970, a Japanese village, a switchback ride, a boating lake and a 9-hole pitch-and-putt golf course. Alexandra Park cricket and football clubs have also played within the grounds (in the middle of the old racecourse) since 1888. A Henry Willis organ installed in 1875, vandalised in 1918 and restored and reopened in 1929, survives. In its 1929 restored form, Willis's masterpiece was declared by Marcel Dupré to be the finest concert-organ in Europe.
Reconstruction in 1982, after a fire in 1980 destroyed much of the building
In 1900, the owners of Alexandra Palace and Park were threatening to sell them for redevelopment, but a consortium of public-spirited men in the district, headed by Mr. Henry Burt, JP a member of the Middlesex County Council and of Hornsey District Council, at once embraced the opportunity of securing the palace and the beautiful grounds for the people of London. A committee was formed by Burt and the consortium managed to raise enough money to purchase them just in time. By the Alexandra Park and Palace (Public Purposes) Act 1900, a charitable trust was created; representatives of the purchasing local authorities became the trustees with the duty to keep both building and park "available for the free use and recreation of the public forever". In 1921 a plaque was erected at the entrance of the south terrace in honour of Burt. It is this duty that the present trustee, the London Borough of Haringey, is currently trying to overturn, protesters fear, by selling the building to a commercial developer. The palace passed into the hands of the Greater London Council in 1967, with the proviso that it should be used entirely for charitable purposes, and their trusteeship was transferred to Haringey council in 1980.
During the First World War the park was closed and the palace and grounds were first used as refugee camp for displaced Belgians, and then later from 1915–19 as an internment camp for German and Austrian civilians. The camp commandant was Lt. Col. R. S. F. Walker until his death in May 1917.
The theatre was greatly altered in the early 1920s, with the general manager, W. J. MacQueen-Pope, spending the war reparation money on refurbishing the auditorium. He abandoned the understage machinery that produced the effects necessary in Victorian melodrama; some of the machinery is preserved, and there is a project to restore some of it to working order. After these changes, the theatre was leased by Archie Pitt, then husband of Gracie Fields, who appeared in the theatre. Fields also drew an audience of 5,000 people to the hall for a charity event.
In 1935, the trustees leased part of the palace to the BBC for use as the production and transmission centre for their new BBC Television service. The antenna was designed by Charles Samuel Franklin of the Marconi Company. The world's first public broadcasts of (then) "high-definition" television were made from Alexandra Palace in 1936, an event which is alluded to by the rays in the modern coat of arms of the London Borough of Haringey. Two competing systems, Marconi-EMI's 405-line system and John Logie Baird's 240-line system, were installed, each with its own broadcast studio and were transmitted on alternate weeks until the 405-line system was chosen in 1937. After the BBC leased the eastern part of the palace the theatre was only used for props storage space.
The Rose Window (southeast front)
The palace continued as the BBC's main transmitting centre for London until 1956, interrupted only by the Second World War when the transmitter found an alternative use jamming German bombers' navigation systems. In 1944, a German doodlebug exploded just outside the organ end of the Great Hall and the Rose Window was blown in, leaving the organ exposed to the elements. In 1947 some of the pieces of the shattered rose window were incorporated in a new design by architect E.T. Spashett during renovation of bomb-damaged public buildings by the Ministry of Works. During the 1940s and 50s the palace also housed a public roller-skating rink and the Alexandra Palace Roller Skating Club.
In the early 1960s, an outside broadcast was made from the top of the tower, in which the first passage of a satellite across the London sky was watched and described. It continued to be used for BBC News broadcasts until 1969, and for the Open University until 1981. The antenna mast still stands and is used for local terrestrial television transmission, local commercial radio and DAB broadcasts. The main London television transmitter is now at Crystal Palace in south London.
Early in 1980, Haringey council took over the trusteeship of Alexandra Palace from the GLC, intending to refurbish the building but just six months later, during Capital Radio's Jazz Festival, a fire started under the organ and quickly spread. It destroyed half the building. Again the outer walls survived and the eastern parts, including the theatre and the BBC Television studios and aerial mast, were saved. Parts of the famous organ were destroyed, though it had been dismantled for repairs so some parts (including nearly all the pipework) were away from the building in store. Some of the damage to the palace was repaired immediately but Haringey council overspent on the restoration, creating a £30 million deficit. It was then reopened to the public in 1988 under a new management team headed by Louis Bizat. Later the council was heavily criticised for the overspend in a report by Project Management International.
In 1991, the attorney-general stated that the overspending by the council as trustee was unlawful and so could not be charged to the charity. The council for some years did not accept this politically embarrassing finding and instead maintained that the charity "owed" the council £30 million, charged compound interest on what it termed a "debt" (which eventually rose to a claim of some £60 million), and to recoup it tried to offer the whole palace for sale — a policy their successors are still trying to carry out despite being rejected by the High Court in October 2007. As of June 2008, it is still unclear whether the council in either of its guises has agreed to write off its 1980s overspend.
An ice rink was installed at Alexandra Palace in 1990. Primarily intended for public skating, it has also housed ice hockey teams including the Haringey Racers, the Haringey Greyhounds, the London Racers and now the Haringey Huskies, as well as a figure skating club, the Alexandra Palace Amateur Ice Skating Club.
This section needs to be updated. (November 2018)
Viewed from the south in 2007
In June 2004, the first performances for about 70 years took place in the theatre, first in its foyer then in July in the theatre itself. Although conditions were far from ideal, the audience was able to see the potential of this very large space – originally seating 3,000, it could not be licensed for more than a couple of hundred. It was intended that the theatre will one day reopen, but much costly restoration would be required first. It will never again reach a seating capacity of 3,000 (not least because one balcony was removed in the early part of the 20th century as a fire precaution, when films started to be shown there). A major season of the theatre company Complicite was planned for 2005 but the project, which would have included some repair and access work, was cancelled due to higher-than-anticipated costs.
Plans by the current trustees, Haringey Council, to replace all the charitable uses by commercial ones by a commercial lease of the entire building, including a casino, encountered considerable public and legal opposition, and on 5 October 2007, in the High Court, Mr. Justice Sullivan granted an application by Jacob O'Callaghan, a London resident, to quash the Charity Commission's order authorising a 125-year lease of the entire building to Firoka Ltd.
A masterplan for the future of the site was drawn up in 2012, comprising six 'big ideas' to restore and redevelop the palace. The first of these to be implemented aims to transform the derelict eastern end of the palace, making accessible the Victorian theatre and historic BBC Studios. In 2013 the Heritage Lottery Fund awarded a Round 1 pass to develop the proposals, creating a new entrance in the restored East Court, re-establishing the theatre as a flexible performance space and re-opening the BBC Studios as a visitor attraction. There was controversy regarding plans to demolish the brick infills in the colonnade on the south-east face of the building, which the BBC constructed after 1936 to form their television studios within. Following a public consultation and advice from English Heritage, Planning and Listed Building Consent was given for the proposals and in March 2015 HLF awarded Round 2 major grant funding securing a positive future for the historic areas.
In 2018 it was announced that the Theatre would open for a BBC Proms performance on 1 September before officially reopening to the public on 1 December 2018 following the completion of the East Wing Restoration Project. The opening programme included performances from Dylan Moran, Horrible Histories, Gilbert & George, Gareth Malone and an evening of jazz presented by Ronnie Scott's.