How Grade I-listed ‘Victorian Jurassic Park’ in London ended up on historic England’s risk list

The dinosaurs of Crystal Palace and besieged Gunnersbury Park are under threat. We must work to save them, says Jack Watkins.

Crystal Palace dinosaurs have delighted children and adults for generations. So when news leaked last year of their listing on the Heritage Register, Historic England’s annual list of historic sites and structures with uncertain futures, it drew a public backlash.

“People were shocked at the condition of the sculptures, but happy that the site was recognized as in need of attention,” said Ellinor Michel, president of the Friends of Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. She reveals that they even had a letter from Sir David Attenborough, who described the dinosaurs as “the first attempt to visualize the dramatic creatures of the distant past in the land where they were discovered, recognized and first named”. A sort of Victorian era jurassic park, if you want.

The 30 sculptures are found on a 20-acre island site in an atmospheric location deep in Crystal Palace Park. Only four of the sculptures are dinosaurs in the strict zoological sense (two Iguanodon, a Hylaeosaurus and a Megalosaurus. Others include pterodactyls, crocodiles and a giant sloth). However, as the President says, as a whole they are “huge, menacing and exciting”.

“The Megalosaurus, the largest and most famous of the statues, recently lost its jaw and the antlers fell from one of the Irish elk deer.”

Created by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins between 1852 and 1855 as part of the work to mark the move of Crystal Palace from Hyde Park to Sydenham Hill, they effectively kicked off our ongoing dinomania.

The first attempt at modeling extinct animals as active three-dimensional creatures in their geological environment, the collection of international significance is listed as Grade I. Yet despite repeated efforts to stabilize the site, the lichen-encrusted creatures are diseased. . The megalosaurus, the largest and most famous of the statues, recently lost its jaw and the antlers fell from one of the Irish elk deer.

A temporary jaw was created for the Megalosaurus, thanks to public donations that Historic England matched. But, explains Dr Michel, “the sculptures require regular checks, monitoring and maintenance by professional restorers to identify and repair any damage so that it does not spread.” In the long term, we don’t know where the funding will come from ”. While she hopes the site will eventually drop off the register, by their nature outdoor sculptures require regular attention. “The sculptures are there to delight us today because people of the past cared. We want to pass this coat on to future generations.

Streatham Hill Theater, a new addition to the list. © Historic England

Gunnersbury Park, on the outskirts of Ealing, has been on the register since the list was created in 1998. A treasure trove of old buildings, including a museum, mad gardens, towering cedars, flowered walks and amenities. Standard recreation, it was the home of George II’s daughter, Princess Amelia in the 18th century, and rivaled Kew in prestige. Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe and a regular visitor, stood on the terrace of his Palladian villa and greeted “an extremely beautiful prospect of Surrey, the Thames and all the border meadows for a few miles”. The romantic setting was depicted in the watercolors of William Payne.

The estate was subdivided in the 19th century, and what is now known as the Grand et Petit Manoir replaced the villa of Princess Amelia. The Rothschilds owned most of the estate at that time, but the park was in serious degradation when it was purchased for the nation as a public park – Neville Chamberlain, then Minister of Health, held his opening ceremony in 1926 (an event captured in an Excerpt from the film Pathé News, now on YouTube.)

However, underfunding has long been a major problem. “We created the Friends of Gunnersbury Park in 1981 because the park was in terrible shape,” said President James Wisdom. “Various buildings have been demolished and the temple designed by William Kent only survives because permission to demolish it was refused.” The register noted that the landscape was “generally in poor condition”, but a conservation plan has been developed and progress has been made over the past decade.

Gunnersbury Park, Hounslow, designed by Sidney Smirke. © Historic England, Chris Redgrave

“The big picture is that we’re halfway there, with the restored grand mansion and the returning museum,” says Wisdom. The public baths and the orangery of Princess Amelia have been restored. A herb garden has been planted between the old and the false Gothic arches that resemble the ruins of a medieval abbey. Plaques name notable trees, such as the rare daimyo oak and a Japanese pagoda tree, survivors of the ancient Japanese garden which, when it opened in 1901, was hailed “as the most strictly true and magnificent design garden and of Japanese composition “, in Great Britain by the Horticultural Journal.

Although another folly, the ghostly, crenellated Gothic boathouse, still looks like a real ruin and the little mansion presents a sad sight, Mr. Wisdom reveals that the latter is “the next to restore.” The scaffolding is a sign of money spent on the roof and various structural elements essential to prepare it for a better future, thanks to funding from Historic England ”.

Mr. Wisdom, who wrote a brief description of the park, explains that it “has a long history of degradation and then recovery.” Each transformation has left its mark on the landscape ”. As the park anticipates the centenary of its opening to the public in five years, it describes ‘Gunnersbury 2026’, the 15-year master plan developed by the borough councils of Ealing and Hounslow, as “the transformation for our generation. “.

Three more places on the risk list

Savoy Cinema, Edgeware

Former Grade II listed cinema with 2,000 seats, designed by Art Deco master George Coles, it retains all of its modern interior fittings, but has been closed since 2014. Authorization has recently been granted to restore the exterior of the building and transform the interior into apartments.

Old St Pancras Church

An immensely historic church, one of the oldest in the capital, next to the former St Pancras labor house. Sir John Soane and Mary Wollstonecraft are buried in his cemetery. The register describes the state of the church as “very bad” and a next millennium project seeks to raise £ 500,000 to complete a restoration program by the end of 2025.

Pope’s Cave, Twickenham

The last surviving element of Alexander Pope’s Villa and Gardens on the Thames. Efforts to halt the decline of the decorated imitation of a natural cave have been underway for 30 years and a recent pilot restoration project, with money from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, has been successful. The goal is to complete the full renovation in 2022.

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