10 of London’s modern icons…3. The BT Tower…

January 31, 2018

Loved and loathed by Londoners over the years since its construction in the mid-Sixties, the column-like BT Tower, despite growing competition, remains a dominant feature of the city’s skyline.

The tallest building in Britain at the time of its official opening in 1965, the 189 metre tall structure (including a 12 metre tall mast) was commissioned by the General Post Office to support microwave aerials which carried communications from London to the rest of the UK.

Designed by a team led by architect GR Yeats under the direction of Eric Bedford, chief architect of the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works, its narrow, tubular shape was engineering to reduce wind resistance and ensure stability.

Construction of the tower started in June, 1961, and some 13,000 tonnes of steel and 4,600 square metres of specially treated glass were used in building the £2.5 million tower.

Along with the aerials capable of handling up to 150,000 simultaneous telephone calls and 40 TV channels, the tower also housed 16 floors of technical and power equipment, as well as other floors with offices and even a revolving restaurant on the 34th floor (it made one revolution every 22 minutes).

PM Harold Wilson did the honours of officially declaring the tower open on 8th October, 1965. Queen Elizabeth II’s first visit would come on 17th May, 1966, just two days before then Postmaster General Tony Benn opened the tower’s public areas – an observation gallery and a 34th floor cocktail bar and restaurant, called Top of the Tower, which was managed by Butlins. More than 50,000 visited the observation gallery in the first three weeks after its opening.

A bomb exploded in the men’s toilets on the 31st floor – the location of the viewing gallery – in October, 1971, and took two years to repair. Despite this – no-one has apparently ever claimed responsibility for the bombing, public areas continued to remain open until the restaurant closed in 1980 and access to the observation gallery ceased in 1981 (although the restaurant is still used for corporate and charity events).

Originally known as the Post Office Tower, the tower has had many other official names since it was built including the Museum Tower, the London Telecom Tower and the BT Tower while staff suggestions at the time it was being constructed included the Pointer, Spindle, Liaiser and Telebeacon. Interestingly, the tower was apparently designated an official secret when built and didn’t appear on Ordnance Survey maps until after MP Kate Hoey, following on from other members who had “given examples of seemingly trivial information that remains officially secret”, told Parliament of its address – 60 Cleveland Street – in February, 1993.

The now Grade II-listed tower, which is located just off Tottenham Court Road in Fitzrovia, remained the tallest building in London until it was overtaken by the NatWest Tower in 1980. The last of its famous satellite dishes were removed in 2011.

Its wrap-around LED light display, officially called the Information Band, went live in 2009. It has since carried special messages on occasions like Remembrance Day and Valentine’s Day as well as an Olympic countdown and even the first ever tweet sent by the Queen (a message to mark the opening of the BT-sponsored ‘Information Age’ communications gallery at the Science Museum in 2014).

The tower has featured numerous times in literature and film, the latter including Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

PICTURES: Top – BT Tower with Wembley in the background (Robert Speirs, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0); Right – View of BT Tower from The Monument (Dun.can, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

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