A black and white photograph of people picnicking on the grass outside a grand hall.
A brief introduction to Architecture Historic photography

150 Years of Alexandra Palace

Sitting high in north London’s skyline, Alexandra Palace has been a prominent leisure attraction since the 19th century.

Alexandra Palace opened on Queen Victoria’s 54th birthday in 1873. Two weeks later, it burned down due to a fire. The Palace subsequently reopened in 1875.

Designed to serve as a public place of recreation, education, and entertainment, Alexandra Palace was initially set to be called the ‘Palace of the People’. It was later decided to be named after the Princess of Wales at the time, Alexandra of Denmark.

A black a white photograph of the Palace from a distance. The gates of the Palace can be seen in the foreground.
The entrance gates to Alexandra Palace in London. Source: Historic England Archive. CC97/00548.

Who designed the Alexandra Palace?

The original architects of the building were John Johnson and Alfred Meeson.

Architectural components from the Kensington International Exhibition building of 1862 were used to create the Palace.

An image of the front of the Palace with a large arch in the centre and arched windows across the front. There is a dome-shaped glass ceiling set back from the font of the building.
Exterior view of the Alexandra Palace entrance. © Dr Patricia Painter. Source: Historic England Archive: IOE01/01846/09.

Alexander McKenzie, a well-known park designer of the mid-19th century, was the landscape gardener for the surrounding 220-acre park. McKenzie also designed the nearby Finsbury Park.

The ‘Palace of the People’

Upon reopening, the Palace featured a concert hall with a Henry Willis organ, one of the largest in Europe at the time, setting the tone for its future as a respected music venue.

Alexandra Palace also had a theatre, circus, racetrack, and boating lake.

A postcard showing the Palace in the background and lake in the foreground. There are two boats in the middle of the lake with people inside and boats lined up at the edge of the lake.
A postcard showing the boating lake outside Alexandra Palace. Source: Historic England Archive. PC10551.

The theatre was equipped with the latest technologies in stage machinery, from traps and flying rigs to quick change sets, which allowed elaborate shows to be performed. The latest entertainments were held grandly, including many art and museum exhibitions.

Healthy recreation and physical exercise became popular among visitors to the park, with many families visiting the children’s playground. On 23 March 1895, the Palace hosted the first-ever women’s football club match.

Run by the British Ladies Football Club, the game saw ‘the North’ competing against ‘the South’ with over 11,000 people reported to have attended.

In 1900, the site was placed in public ownership by an Act of Parliament to continue as ‘a place of public resort and recreation’. It has remained so except during wartime.

A black and white photograph showing a close up of people sitting on the grass in front of the Palace.
People picnicking outside Alexandra Palace in London. Source: Historic England Archive. CC97/01485.

A place of refuge

During the First World War in 1914, the Palace and grounds were first used as a refugee camp for the Belgian people and later as a German and Austrian internment camp.

Throughout this time, the theatre was converted into a chapel, providing a place for the Catholic Belgian people to take mass. Meanwhile, the theatre was used as a hospital for Belgian and Dutch refugees during the war’s first year.

The Palace suffered considerable damage during the First World War and subsequently was significantly altered, reopening in 1922. The auditorium was refurbished with a new bar installed in the theatre under the circle.

The birthplace of television

Alexandra Palace became the location for many TV firsts. In 1935, part of the Palace was leased to the BBC as a production and transmission centre. A 213-foot antenna tower was erected for television broadcasting, which can still be seen at the Palace today.

The world’s first public high definition broadcast occurred a year later, in 1936. Former dining rooms were transformed into two state-of-the-art studios to host trials between the Baird Company and Marconi-EMI. Both competed to carry the television standard for the future, with Marconi-EMI winning.

A blue plaque was given to the Palace to commemorate the world’s first regular high-definition television service.

A black and white photograph of a camera with the engraving 'BBC' recording a lady presenting, holding a bowl with a cake next to her.
Marguerite Patten presenting a cookery show in front of a BBC television camera at Alexandra Palace in London. Source: Historic England Archive. CC016867.

The studios at Alexandra Palace became the home of television. In 1946, one of the first television programmes dedicated to children aired, Muffin the Mule. Landmark programmes were also broadcasted from the Palace, including the 1953 coronation. In 1954, the BBC began to test out colour television, while after 1956, it was used exclusively for news broadcasts.

BBC Two launched from Alexandra Palace in 1964 when a power cut affected the BBC Television Centre in Shepherd’s Bush.

Destruction strikes again

A second fire broke out on the morning of 10 July 1980. It was thought to have started behind the Willis organ in the Great Exhibition Hall before spreading to the roof. After trying to contain the fire, around one-third of the building was destroyed, including the Great Hall, the Banqueting Suite, and the roller-skating rink.

The reconstruction of the Palace led to new design changes, such as a silicone roof coated in fibreglass, a material that hadn’t been used in Britain before. It also allowed for adding the rose window, which Maria McLafferty designed.

A photograph of a hall with people in high visibility in the middle and construction assets around the room. The ceiling features intricate detailing.
The former exhibition hall theatre at Alexandra Palace during renovation. © Historic England Archive. DP232574.

The new Palace formally opened on 17 March 1988, featuring a new Great Hall and West Hall. The Palm Court was restored to its previous glory and featured a new Phoenix Bar.

New trees, facilities, lighting, and car parking improved the park. Instead of restoring the previous roller-skating rink, an ice-skating rink was built in the former east concert hall and opened in 1990.

A place of entertainment and recreation

The Palace has become a popular entertainment venue. During the 1990s, many award shows were broadcast live from the Palace, including the Brit Awards, MTV EMA, and the MOBO Awards.

Over the years, the Palace has hosted the likes of Gracie Fields (who popularised the name Ally Pally), the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, and Queen.

A photograph of trees and buildings in the foreground and the dome of St Paul's Cathedral in the distance. The Shard can be seen in the distance also.
The protected view looking south from Alexandra Palace towards the Shard, the Barbican, and St Paul’s Cathedral in London. © Historic England Archive. DP278525.

The theatre was hidden for over 80 years with construction to bring it back to life starting in 2016. Much work was done to preserve its unique characteristics, retaining its charm and character.

Today, the Palace hosts an array of productions, including theatre, opera, comedy, concerts, cinema, and more.

Ally Pally continues to be a place for recreation with a choice of things to do. Visitors can enjoy unparalleled views of the London skyline. The view south from the Palace toward St Paul’s Cathedral is protected, providing uninterrupted views of London’s famous landmark.

The Palace also offers a year-round ice-skating rink, the tree-top adventures of Go Ape, a garden centre, and a weekly farmer’s market, making it north London’s go-to destination.

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