An ornate turreted building in South Kensington, construction of the Imperial Institute began in 1887 – the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee.

Designed by Thomas Edward Collcutt and paid for almost entirely by public subscription, the huge 213 metre long building featured three “Renaissance-style” towers with copper covered domes. Foremost among them was the 87 metre high Queen’s Tower (initially known as the Collcutt Tower after the architect).

Officially opened by Queen Victoria in 1893 (although the building was apparently never completed), the building – which was built to mark the Queen’s Golden Jubilee – was intended as an exhibition space to showcase the Empire’s industrial and commercial resources and also as a location for research and meetings.

The idea for a permanent exhibition space for colonial “produce” had apparently been enthusiastically backed by the Prince of Wales (and the Queen herself) following a series of exhibitions showcasing the wares of India and the colonies in preceding years.

But the enthusiasm for the institute, said to have cost more than £350,000, quickly waned (perhaps because of a vagueness over its purpose) and despite efforts to encourage people to use it through introducing “attractions” like a billiards room, the financial position of the institute became somewhat straitened.

Help came from the University of London which took over half of the building just six years later in 1899 and other tenants followed in attempt to keep money for maintenance flowing. Various government departments took on responsibility for the building in the following years.

With its purpose increasingly questioned by the middle of the 20th century, when Imperial College needed to expand, it was decided to demolish the building. Demolition started in 1957 and ran into the mid-1960s. Thanks to public protests led by Poet Laureate Sir John Betjeman, the Queen’s Tower, however, was preserved and is now part of Imperial College.

The tower, which once had a public viewing gallery (now closed) contains 10 bells, known as the Alexandra Peal, which are hung about halfway up the tower. They given by a Mrs Elizabeth A Miller, of Melbourne, Australia, in 1892 as a gift and are named after Queen Victoria, the then Prince and Princess of Wales, and other children and grandchildren of the Queen. They are rung on important college occasions.

Meanwhile, the institute, renamed the Commonwealth Institute, relocated to Kensington High Street. It later went into liquidation. That site now houses the recently unveiled Design Museum.

PICTURE: Top – Imperial Institute during the Edwardian era (public domain); Below –  The Queen’s Tower is all that now remains of the institute (licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

The original entrance to Euston Station, Euston Arch was not so much an arch as a colonnaded monumental gateway, formally known as a propylaeum, which resembled the entrance to a Greek temple.

Euston-ArchBuilt in 1837 (pictured here in 1851), it was designed by architect Philip Hardwick and inspired by the ancient architecture he had encountered on a trip to Europe – in particular the grand entrance to the Acropolis in Athens.

Commissioned by the London and Birmingham Railway as the grand entrance to the company’s new station then facing on to Euston Square (the site is now covered by the station structure), it was designed to complement the existing structure which had been built at the other end of the line in Curzon Street Station in Birmingham.

The building, which rose to a height of 21.5 metres and was built from Yorkshire-sourced sandstone, featured four columns behind which stood large iron gates. Rather controversial even when built, it led to an apparently unexciting courtyard lined with offices. There were lodges to either side.

While there had been a couple of proposals to relocate the arch – particularly after notice was given in 1960 that it would be demolished so the station could be rebuilt – none of the proposals came to fruition, and despite some intense last minute lobbying to preserve the arch by conservationists (among those lobbying were poet Sir John Betjeman and architectural scholar Sir Nikolaus Pevsner), demolition – viewed by some as an “architectural crime” – started in December 1961.

While sections of the arch was subsequently used as fill in the Prescott Channel in East London (numerous sections have since been recovered from the water), the main gates were saved and given to the National Railway Museum in York.

There has been talk of rebuilding the arch particularly since the formation of the Euston Arch Trust in 1994 (the patron of which is Michael Palin) with the aim of reusing some of the lost stonework. While rebuilding hasn’t yet eventuated, the proposed redevelopment of Euston Station in more recent years has given the project new impetus.

PICTURE: Wikipedia.

• A medieval barn in west London, said to be the “Cathedral of Middlesex”, will open to the public in April. The Grade I listed Harmondsworth Barn was built in 1426 by Winchester College, who owned a manor farm at Harmondsworth, and was used to store grain. Nearly 60 metres long, the roof is held up by 13 massive oak trusses. In 2006, the barn was bought by an off-shore company who subsequently agreed to sell it to English Heritage following the issuing of a notice for emergency repairs. English Heritage say the barn, called the “Cathedral of Middlesex” by the late poet-laureate Sir John Betjeman, will now be “run by and for the local community”. “Harmondsworth Barn is one of the greatest medieval buildings in Britain, built by the same skilled carpenters who worked on our magnificent medieval cathedrals,” says Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage. “Its rescue is at the heart of what English Heritage does – protecting this nation’s architectural treasures and helping people discover our national story through them. We will complete the repair of this masterpiece and working with local people, will open it to the public to enjoy.” For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk. (Image: Copyright English Heritage; Photographer Boris Baggs).

The oldest Roman brothel token to have been discovered in London has gone on temporary display at the Museum of London. The token, which may be the oldest of its kind to have been found in Britain (or, indeed, even the only one of its kind ever found in Britain), was known as a spintria and depicts two reclining human figures on one side and the Roman numeral 14 on the other. It was found on the Thames foreshore near Putney Bridge by a mudlarker using a metal detector. Only the size of a 10 cent piece, its use remains something of a mystery – it may have been exchanged for sexual services or used as gaming piece. The token is on display at the museum until April. For more, see www.museumoflondon.org.uk.

Free wifi is being rolled out across Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea as part of deal between Westminster City Council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea and network operator, O2. The network, installation of which began last month, is initially being rolled out in a limited number of areas but will eventually cover all of the boroughs and create the largest free wireless hub in Europe.

Now On: Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam. This exhibition at the British Museum is the first to focus on the pilgrimage to Mecca in Saudi Arabia – a central tenet of the Islamic faith. Organised in partnership with the King Abdulaziz Public Library in Riyadh, it’s based around three central themes: the pilgrim’s journey to Mecca with an emphasis on the major routes taken; the Hajj today and its associated rituals; and the origins and importance of the Hajj to Mecca. Objects featured in the exhibition include a seetanah which covers the door of the Ka’ba as well as gifts offered to the sanctuary and souvenirs taken back home. It’s the first of three exhibitions at the British Museum focused on spiritual journeys. Runs until 15th April. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.britishmuseum.org.

The proposed cable car crossing of the Thames will be sponsored by airline Emirates in a 10-year, £36 million deal announced last Friday. To be known as the ‘Emirates Air Line’, the cable car will link the DLR station Royal Victoria with the Jubilee Line station North Greenwich and will involve the creation of two new cable car stations bearing the sponsor’s name – Emirates Greenwich Peninsula on the south bank and Emirates Royal Docks on the north. It is the first time a corporate brand will appear on the Tube map. Transport for London has said the new service could be operational by summer 2012 (although whether it will be ready for the Olympics remains uncertain). It will feature 34 cable car gondolas and ferry as many as 2,500 passengers across the river every hour with an expected two million passengers to use the service each year. The journey is expected to take five minutes and will see the gondolas travelling at a height of 160 feet above the river. The sponsorship deal was announced by the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, along with Tim Clark, president of Emirates Airline, and Mike Brown, managing director of London Underground and Rail.

• The Duke of Gloucester unveiled a new statue, called Plumber’s Apprentice, at Cannon Street Station last week to mark the 400th anniversary of the granting of a Royal Charter to London’s Worshipful Company of Plumbers. Sculpted by Martin Jennings (he also created the statue of British poet Sir John Betjeman that now stands in St Pancras Station), the seven foot tall bronze statue is said to underline the livery company’s ongoing commitment to train young plumbers. The company, which was formed in 1365, received its charter from King James I in 1611. From 1690, following the destruction of the company’s previous hall in the Great Fire of London, it was based in a building on the site of the railway station. In 1863, it was forced to again move when the hall was compulsorily purchased to make way for the railway. Also present at the unveiling were the Lord Mayor of London, Michael Bear, and the Lady Mayoress, herself a sculptress and liverymen of the Worshipful Company of Plumbers. For more, see www.plumberscompany.org.uk.

• On now: Shaped by War: Photographs by Don McCullin. The Imperial War Museum is hosting the largest ever exhibition of the life and works of acclaimed photographer Don McCullin. The display features some 250 photographs including rarely seen before portraits of anonymous victims of war, contact sheets, objects, magazine and personal memorabilia. Conflicts covered include those of the Cold War, in places like Vietnam and Cambodia, Bangladesh and the Middle East – the latter include images from the Gulf War and the 20o3 invasion of Iraq. There is also a newly commissioned video in which McCullin talks about the exhibition. Runs until 15th April, 2012. An admission charge applies. For more, see www.iwm.org.uk.

The State Dining Room at Apsley House, the Duke of Wellington’s former London residence, reopened to the public last weekend after a make-over. The revitalisation works included repairing and cleaning the ceiling and chandelier as well as the Portuguese silver centre piece, which was presented to Wellington by the Portuguese Council of Regency to commemorate his victories over Napoleon in the Peninsular War. The house, which bears the landmark address of Number One London, was given to the nation in 1947 by the 7th Duke of Wellington, whose family continues to occupy private rooms in the premises. See www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/apsley-house/.

Seventy-six years after it last hosted a guest, the former Midland Grand Hotel at London’s St Pancras station reopened its doors quietly earlier this month following a 10 year, £150 million restoration project. The Grade I-listed Victorian Gothic building, designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott (he also designed the Albert Memorial), originally opened in 1873. It closed in 1935 but was saved from demolition in the 1960s after a campaign led by poet laureate Sir John Betjeman. Among the highlights of the recent project is the restoration of the Sir George Gilbert Scott suite to look like it did in the Victorian era. The hotel, rebranded the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel,  will be officially opened on 5th May, exactly 138 years after it first opened. See www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/lonpr-st-pancras-renaissance-london-hotel/.

Architect Sir Basil Spence (1907-1976) has been honored with an English Heritage blue plaque outside his former home and office in Islington. The architect, best known for his redesign of Coventry Cathedral after it was bombed by the Luftwaffe during World War II, lived and worked at 1 Canonbury Place from 1956 until the mid-1960s. He and his family then moved next door while he continued to use the property as his offices (it remained in use as architectural offices long after his death). Other commissions for which Sir Basil is known include Kensington and Chelsea Town Hall, the controversial Knightsbridge Barracks and the Swiss Cottage Library. Internationally, his works included the unusual ‘beehive’ extension to the Parliament Building in Wellington, New Zealand.

• Now On: Your chance to lift the two 1,100 tonne bascules at Tower Bridge. The City of London Corporation this week launched their annual competition to find a “guest bridge driver”. Enter by going to Tower Bridge’s website (www.towerbridge.co.uk) and answering a question about the bridge or the Square Mile. The winner will be drawn next month and as well as using the controls to lift and lower the bridge, will receive a commemorative certificate in the control cabin, a tour of the Tower Bridge Exhibition and the chance to visit the underground bascule chamber and fifth-level turrets, neither of which are normally open to the public. They’ll also be presented with a bottle of champagne.