The Crystal Palace is opened! The great event on which so many hopes, expectations, and anxieties were clustered, is at last completed. No event, for a long time, has created so general and so profound an interest in the public mind. The whole city was alive yesterday with the interest and excitement which the event occasioned. Throngs of spectators were eager to catch a glimpse of the grand procession by which the President of the United States was to be escorted to the palace. An immense tide of travel moved toward the building during the whole forenoon. Sixth Avenue cars ran once a minute, each crowded to its utmost capacity. Stages running to the vicinity of the building were also densely filled.

At an early hour, the Palace was besieged by applicants for admission. Stern officials guarded the entrances, and informed all who came, that until 10 o'clock none but exhibitors would be admitted. At 10, however, the jealous gates unclosed, and red, yellow, white, and blue invitations poured in at the different entrances. The throng, even then, was excessive. The omnibuses, cars, hackney coaches, all poured forth their live freight at Forty-second Street, and ladies and gentlemen, at every degree of temperature, ascended the stairs that led to the interior. Foreigners, we observed, distinguished themselves much. French gentlemen, invested in magical waistcoats, would persist in delivering their red cards of admission where only blue were admitted, and we observed numbers of very energetic Germans who wanted to go in everywhere. There was, seemingly, however, a large amount of happiness diffused over every one's face. New dresses were displayed—husbands were attentive, and there seemed to be a universal determination to be joyful, which was, as far as we could see, carried out to the very letter.

The interior of the palace was even more imposing than we could have anticipated. The change wrought in it since the night before seemed a miracle. Everything was neat and orderly. The floors were thoroughly swept, much of the contributions were displayed, among which Thorwaldsen's noble series of "Christ and His Apostles," in the Danish section, attracted much deserved attention. Bright banners flaunted from the galleries, suits of old armor, from the Tower of London, frowned grimly on the scene, as if the spirit of antiquity was wroth within them at the contrast between our days, bright with intellectual progress, and those good, old benighted times in which they saw service. And over all, the great dome stretched its painted canopy, joining together the diverging naves, as the building itself drew together widely differing nations.

The palace filled rapidly. At the intersections of the naves, and all beneath the dome, the floor was soon parti-colored as a garden with brilliant bonnets and silks, and young ladies who were afraid of being too enthusiastic, lest they should be laughed at, walked wonderingly about. The platform in the north nave, which was to be the great scene of interest for the day, began about this time to be animated. Members of the Senate, guests invited by special request, martial officers, looking anything but easy in their uniforms, and the president of the Crystal Palace with his official staff, and a host of other persons too distinguished to be well known, made their appearance on the boards. The Press, too, took possession of its table at the base of Washington's statue, and nibbed its pens, and arranged its note-books with great solemnity.

It was already 1 o'clock, and the President,2 without whom nothing could go on, had not arrived. Watches innumerable were pulled out on the platform. Mr. Sedgwick looked grave. His staff looked still more grave, and among all outside barbarians who were not on the platform, there was a great craning of heads over other people's shoulders, to see if they could not catch a glimpse of the Chief Magistrate. But he came not—and people took to wandering once more through the galleries and naves. Presently there was a stir and a hum, and the people surged to and fro, and all that could run, ran, and arrived in time to see a tall, soldierly, and not ungraceful gentleman cross the platform. A loud clapping of hands greeted the Hero of Chippewa.3 Then some more celebrities mounted the stage unrecognized by any popular demonstration. The time wore rapidly on, diversified by a slight panic on the stage, created by the breaking of a pane of glass in the dome, and the fall of some of the fragments, until, at length, the sound of trumpets was caught up in the distance, and then everybody settled themselves firmly in their places or sought new ones, or strove to regain their old—for it was announced that the President had come.

At this moment the scene presented from the gallery by the crowd upon the floor below was one of unequaled brilliancy. The whole space under the dome, extending nearly to the end of each nave, was densely filled by the eager mass. Ladies in great numbers, many of them exceedingly handsome, and all gaily drest, filled the benches, sat upon the stairs, or stood anxiously looking over the gallery railing. Here and there, scattered through the mass, rose the tall plumes of the military, adding variety and brilliancy to a scene already gay with many colors. The platform set apart for the reception of President Pierce was erected in the north nave of the palace, toward the center of the building; and on it were ranged seats for over 700 persons. . .

The honor of originating an international exhibition has been very generally awarded by the English people to Prince Albert; that people, in their loyalty, are always glad of an opportunity to decorate the brows of their rulers; but in reality, the thought of an industrial exposition of the industries of all nations took its rise almost simultaneously in the minds of several English gentlemen, among whom were Digby Wyatt and S. C. Hall, the editor and proprietor of the London Art Journal. However disposed one may be to cavil at a prince's undue honors, one must yield to Prince Albert all praise for the heartiness and alacrity with which he entered into the undertaking. In England, royal patronage is all that is required to make anything successful. It no sooner became known that the "highest personage in the land" was interesting herself in the scheme of an international exhibition, than support came from all quarters.

The grandeur of the conception was immediately recognized on all sides; and that which, if presented by a private individual, would have been sneered down as chimerical and impossible, became, in the hands of a royal sponsor, not only feasible, but sublime. Meanwhile, the great work went on. Sir Joseph, then plain Mr. Paxton, greenhouse architect to his Grace the Duke of Devonshire, having, from constant association with conservatories, a natural taste for glass houses, conceived the happy idea of a crystal palace. Tho late in the field, as all the other architects had long since sent in plans for a suitable building in which to hold the exhibition, he betook himself to the realization of his idea with wonderful energy; completed his plans in an incredibly short space of time, and forwarded them to the Committee of Judgment. The novelty of the idea, the beauty of the proposed structure, its many advantages over erections of solider materials, at once overwhelmed any scruples which so bold a conception might have otherwise generated, and Mr. Paxton was declared the successful competitor.

The details of his plan were no sooner made public than all the distrust of novelty, so peculiar to the English character, broke out in full force. The press, while acknowledging the boldness of the conception, took occasion to predict its utter failure. Architectural publications entered into elaborate calculations, to prove that such a building was not capable of sustaining its own weight. Nervous ladies declared that they would never enter so unstable a structure, and rival architects wrote savage letters to the Times, denouncing Mr. Paxton as a humbug, and the Crystal Palace as a huge trap in which unwary citizens on the day of opening would be caught.

Undeterred by these assaults, Mr. Paxton went steadily on, and soon the calm waters of the Serpentine reflected columns, derricks, girders, and all the other paraphernalia of builders. Having exhausted themselves in attacking the stability of the building, critics turned to its decorations. These had been entrusted to Mr. Owen Jones, a gentleman of great skill, who devoted much time and labor to chromatic decorations. When the public saw Mr. Jones painting the ironwork of the palace in patches of bright blue and red, varied with white, orange, and black, they declared that the building was about to be reduced to a vulgar show, painted in glaring colors. When the whole was complete, however, they saw how those hues, blended into one another, produced a soft and varied effect that pleased without tiring the eye.

On the 1st of May, 1851, all objections were answered, all evil predictions confuted, all invective silenced, when the solemn opening of the Crystal Palace was effected by her Majesty Queen Victoria in person. The writer was present on that memorable occasion. The pageant which he beheld will not easily be forgotten. Twenty-five thousand men and women had assembled to witness the ceremony. The vast building, covering eleven acres of ground, was thronged, the crowd for the most part silent, and duly imprest with the solemnity of the occasion. When some ruffian from without flung a stone on the roof, and the noise of its rebounds echoed like thunder through the huge hall, the great tide of human life gave one sudden surge of fear. Every one thought of the mournful prognostications that the building would fall; but the panic lasted only a moment. Then the organ pealed out its grand devotional music, which flowed like a mighty river through the long halls, and the Queen walked confidingly among her subjects.

1 As reported in the New York Times of July 15, 1853. The Crystal Palace was erected on ground now in part occupied by the New York Public Library, at Fifth Avenue and Forty-second Street, and extended westward into what is now Bryant Park. It was modeled after the building of the same name first erected in Hyde Park, London, for the World's Fair in 1851, and afterward removed to Sydenham, a suburb of London, in which place it still stands. The London building is 1608 feet long with a transept 390 by 125 feet. The building in New York was much smaller. Its destruction by fire in 1858 was an event of much note in the annals of the city.
Return to text.

2 Franklin Pierce.
Return to text.

3 General Winfield Scott, who, in November, 1852, had been the unsuccessful Whig candidate for President, Franklin Pierce being elected. The two candidates were now on the same platform.
Return to text.

Table of Contents
Return to Main Page
© 2002, 2003 by Lynn Waterman