Today (March 7) in London History – the Floral Hall

What’s the Today in London hors d’oeuvre? Was it really necessary to ask?  It’s March 7th so you should of course treat yourself to a visit to the Floral Hall at the Royal Opera House. Have a drink at the bar there. And then a wander.


Ok, Today in London History

It’s Covent Garden’s Crystal Palace.

And today’s its birthday.

The Floral Hall was opened on March 7th, 1860.

The history as such is pretty humdrum – no firsts, no technological breakthroughs, the conflicts such as they were, were nothing special, there was no drama to speak of – apart from the packaged, staged variety. 

But the building itself is drama. It’s the story. It’s the history. 

Something seriously wrong with you if you don’t gasp with delight when you come out of one of those alleyways that thread through to Bow Street, look over the way and there it is, next to the Royal Opera House. Especially at night. If I were forced to give up, one by one, my favourite London views, that one would be one of the last two or three to go. 

First of all, it’s a stunning pairing, the Floral Hall and her imperious parent, the Royal Opera House. The Royal Opera House – sleek in her assurance, all corinthian columns and porch and pediment and creamy rich stucco – she’s like an extremely well-appointed, well turned out frightfully upper-class matron. And then next to her, her brash, spangly, got it, flaunt it, be-metalled and be-jewelled teenage daughter – the Floral Hall. 

And if you want to add to the fun, turn your head and look over the way at the Bow Street Police Station and Magistrate’s Court. Nicholas Pevsner, the Buildings of England Architectural polymath, gives it just two words, through pained, pursed lips. Gravely Palladian. But the contrast with what’s going on over the way is a thing of wonder. The Police Station and Magistrate’s Court is like a severe old retainer, discretely waiting in attendance on the grand dame and her impossibly flashy daughter over the way.

So it may not be much in the way of history but it’s a great show. And of course there’s London – the environs of Covent Garden  –unfolding all around it. Adds up to a London architectural hit parade it’s impossible to go wrong with. 

Now a bit about the building. Usual principle – the more you know about something the more interesting it becomes, the greater the fascination it exerts.

It’s more than a little appropriate to anthropomorphise the Floral Hall and the Royal Opera House because the very ground the Floral Hall stands on was artists’ corner. The foremost portrait painter of the late Restoration was Sir Godfrey Kneller and sure enough, his house stood where the Flora Hall stands today. It was later occupied by Sir James Thornhill, England’s foremost decorative painter – his masterpieces are the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral and the painted hall at the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich – for good measure, he was a huge influence on William Hogarth and indeed in the end, Hogarth’s father-in-law. It goes on, because after Thornhill, the house was occupied by another leading portrait painter, Benjamin Wilson. 

If Peter Ackroyd is right about certain corners of London having a titular spirit it’s hardly surprising that the Floral Hall, being where it is – there on artists’ corner – is like the teenage beauty whose entrance is a showstopper and whom nobody can tear their eyes away from for the rest of the evening. 

Anyway, the building itself… 

The architect for both it and the Royal Opera House was Edward Middleton Barry, the son of Charles Barry, he of Houses of Parliament fame. In fact, Edward assisted his father on the new palace at Westminster. Brought it to completion after his father died. When you’re looking at the upper reaches of the Victoria and Big Ben towers that to a very considerable extent was the work of our Floral Hall and Royal Opera House man, Charles Barry’s son, Edward Middleton Barry.

Another neat London connection, Edward Middleton Barry was the architectural and artistic hand and mind behind the Charing Cross Hotel and the Eleanor Cross in its forecourt. 

The dazzling Floral Hall itself – all windows and iron girders – it stands to reason that it would come along in the same decade as the Crystal Palace. As I said right at the outset, it’s a smaller Crystal Palace. It’s Covent Garden’s Crystal Palace.

Its formal opening on this night – March 7th, 1860 – was a big deal, a huge do. Thousands in attendance. Coldstream Guards band providing the music. 

It’s certainly been versatile, as buildings go. It was used for receptions, balls and concerts. World-famous operatic artists sang there. As the name implies, it was originally intended to be a place where flowers were sold. The proprietor of the Royal Opera House – it was called the Italian Opera House in its earliest incarnation – anyway, the Opera House proprietor, one Frederick Gye had an eye for the main chance. Or what he thought was the main chance. The Floral Hall was a speculative attempt by Mr Gye to cash in on the adjacent flower and vegetable market. Didn’t pan out. In fact, turned out to be a white elephant. The Duke of Bedford threw a spanner in the works by opening a rival flower market in the piazza. And in the end the Duke of Bedford bought the Floral Hall in 1887. He converted it into a foreign fruit market. So you’d go to the Floral Market to buy fruit. Utterly charming. Makes perfect London sense. Later it housed props for the opera house. It suffered a couple of bad fires. And then finally, in our lifetime, it was restored and, yes, underwent major alterations. It’s now an integral part of the Royal Opera House operation. Beautiful inside and outside. And as a space it’s wonderfully flexible. It’s a bar and a cafe but also sometimes a performance space.

It’s open to all comers throughout the day. In the evenings it’s shared by the whole audience during intervals. The aim is to make performances less hierarchical and exclusive.

All part of the major transformation the Royal Opera House complex underwent nearly a quarter of a century ago.

And there’s a very good case to be made that the Floral Hall turned out to be the Cinderella of the whole shebang. Let me quote from a wonderfully nuanced first impressions piece when it was brand new. And we’ll end on this note. End on a high.

Architectural historian Giles Worsley said,  “most impressive of all is the Floral Hall at the heart of the complex. This handsome barrel-vaulted former Victorian market hall has been partially re-erected on the first floor as a grand foyer, allowing the building to breath and adding an air of glamour. Even Dixon and Jones’s trademark escalator, which runs up from the Flora Hall to the amphitheatre bar and was questioned by many because in London escalators seem inevitably to carry with them the tawdry image of the London Underground, has a lightness and grace. As if all this were not enough, there is also a new, flexible studio theatre for 420 buried in the bowels of the building.”

And on that note, good night from the Floral Hall. Good night from London. See you tomorrow. 

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