Monday, June 4, 2012

Notes for King's Raven: The palace of the people

Refined recreation, calculated to elevate the intellect, to instruct the mind, and to impress the heart, will welcome the millions who have now no other incentives to pleasure but those which the gin palace, dancing saloon, and the ale house afford them... the triumphs of industry and art, and the natural beauty of flowers and plants from every climate will meet at the Crystal Palace...
            —From the investment prospectus of the Crystal Palace Company, 1852

The Crystal Palace had been raised in all its industrial glory for the Great Exhibition of 1851, celebrating the Industry of All Nations and particularly of England. It was meant to last only a summer, and so it did. But the public from the queen herself to the humble working man cried out: the fabulous structure of iron and glass that housed it, the great Crystal Palace itself, could not be allowed to not simply disappear, the mayfly of a nation’s whimsy. It had, after all, been designed to be set up, taken down, packed, unpacked, removed, and so on until, perhaps, the end of time.

And so it was. Well, just the once. After that one brilliant summer of 1851, the public and even the press—which had mocked it so mercilessly in its career—wanted it to stand, but the neighbors complained. Contracts had been signed and assurances given. The lofty inhabitants of Mayfair wanted their parks back, and horses and carriages in which the well-heeled passed their Sundays and each other, greeting and gossiping, wanted Rotten Row again and its avenues of elms. They had been promised that the invasion of foreigners, anarchists, and the working classes who came to be improved and elevated (morally if not socially), mingling in a kind of utopian bonhomie, would be a momentary thing not meant to alter the right and god-given structure of society. And even though the Queen herself had visited frequently, filling her diary with accounts of the wonders on display: a contract is a contract.

So down it had come, neatly packed away, Hyde Park, Green Park, St James’s Park all restored. But even while the substantial profits were being cheerfully totted up, and as prizes for wonderful inventions were distributed, and the inevitable lawsuits wrangled, plans were afoot to do it all again, using the existing frames and panels. Only this time it would be Bigger, Better, and altogether in the Spirit of Empire that made the British heart swell with pride.

They added extra transepts and more features, and over time added even more expansive gardens, fountains, and a pack of concrete dinosaurs around a man-made lake. And when it opened on Sydenham Hill across the river in the summer of 1854, it was broader, taller, held more exhibits, displays, and demonstrations than ever before. It would be a concert hall, flower show venue, gallery, and trade show. Admission, most days, was still a single silver shilling. It was still closed on Sundays. It was as inimical to Faerie as ever before.

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