10 of London’s greatest Victorian projects – 3. The Palm House, Kew Gardens…

We head back before the creation of the grand buildings of Albertopolis for this week’s entry to the construction of the Palm House at Kew Gardens – widely considered the world’s most important surviving Victorian-era glass and iron structure.

Palm-House,-KewDesigned by the great architect Decimus Burton (his other works include Wellington Arch), the now Grade I-listed Palm House was built under the supervision of leading Irish glasshouse designer Richard Turner between 1844 and 1848 as a home for Kew’s collection of exotic palms. Turner borrowed from the ship-building industry to build the structure, which contains 16,000 panes of glass, with the design essentially that of an upturned ship’s hull.

Due to the fact that the palms needed a warm environment in which to live, coal-fed boilers were located in a basement below the Palm House which heated water pipes running throughout the building (the smoke from the boilers was diverted to the Italianate Campanile located a short distance away which acted as a smoke stack).

The Palm House (the earliest known picture is shown above) has been restored several times – first in the 1950s when the boilers were converted to run on oil and moved to a site behind the Campanile, and again in the 1980s, a complete overhaul which involved almost completely emptying the structure of its resident palms, dismantling and rebuilding the structure itself. It was officially reopened by Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, in 1990.

Among the many exotic plants inside the glasshouse – which rises to a height of 19 metres – highlights include the rare triangle palm (Dypsis decaryi) from Madagascar, a Mexican yam (Dioscorea macrostachya), used apparently in the development of the contraceptive pill, a double coconut palm (Lodoicea maldivica) which bears the largest seed in the world, and a cycad (Encephalartos altensteinii) which has been described as the “world’s oldest pot plant” and was brought to Kew from South Africa in 1775.

WHERE: The Palm House, Kew Gardens (nearest Tube station is Kew Gardens); WHEN: 9.30am to 3.45pm except Tuesday when it closes at 2pm (closing times change with the seasons); COST: £14.50 adults/£12.50 concessions/children 16 and under free; WEBSITE: www.kew.org.

PICTURE: Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

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