Fifty Years Of The BT Tower

By James FitzGerald Last edited 46 months ago
Fifty Years Of The BT Tower

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The BT Tower isn’t what you’d think of as a regular, full-bodied skyscraper. But try telling that to the many denizens of low-rise 1960s Fitzrovia who witnessed with horror the erection of that incongruous, gargantuan structure at 60 Cleveland Street.

When completed in 1964, the Post Office Tower — as it was first known — rose 177 metres (191 metres with rooftop mast), trumping St Paul’s Cathedral, and the recently completed Vickers Tower (now Millbank Tower), to become the tallest building in Britain*, never mind the capital city. Why did it take so long to eclipse old Wren? Look no further than the 1894 London Building Act which capped building height at 80 feet.

Visually and functionally, the Tower remains as obvious a relic of the Cold War as you’ll see this side of East Berlin. Designed to withstand any nearby nuclear blast and with a war room in the basement, the Tower was the fortified hub of a new microwave telecommunications network serving chiefly commercial but also defence needs. Prime Minister Harold Wilson inaugurated it by making a call to Birmingham.

London’s worst-kept secret

Looming above gentile Georgian terraces below, this totem of military resilience was naturally an alienating, foreboding thing at first. Even Doctor Who got creeped out by it, while The Goodies imagined it being pulled down by a big cat, quite popularly.

Heightening the enigma was the Tower’s entry onto the Official Secrets List. Sketching or photographing the building was technically forbidden by a law which seemed to be immediately flouted by the Post Office itself, who issued a set of stamps depicting the Tower. Clement Freud MP highlighted the ludicrous situation in parliament by suggesting the phonebook should be withdrawn for listing the Tower.

A myth continues to persist that this ‘secret’ structure was also deliberately missed off Ordnance Survey maps until the ‘90s. Sadly for conspiracy theorists, that claim can be debunked by a quick whizz through the archives. In any case, the government had done little to make this titan seem anything but an imposing, unfriendly thing.

View from the top.

Futuristic thrills, courtesy of Butlins

Except, that is, for installing a rotating restaurant at the top, inaugurated by then-Postmaster General Tony Benn. The claustrophobic eatery was operated by Butlins and had celebs and punters queuing round the West End. As well as dishing up prawn cocktail in a nuke-proof setting, the attraction offered stupendous 15-mile vistas of London’s modest, church spire-pricked skyline across to the Home Counties.

Beneath was a viewing gallery, accessible by super-fast lifts travelling at six metres a second. The £3 admission (in today’s money) was felt by some to be prohibitive – how times change.

The fun lasted only a few years. After hoax upon hoax, all the Tower’s fears about bombs were finally realised. The restaurant was empty when a device hidden in a toilet exploded on Halloween 1971, but shrapnel and debris were blasted hundreds of yards. The IRA claimed responsibility, but the Angry Brigade also said it was their protest at Britain joining the EU.

No lives were lost, but an official admitted that security was impossible to guarantee across 35 floors. And that was that. The restaurant was closed in 1980, the year the Tower was superseded in height by a building we now call Tower 42. Twelve months later and all public access was shut off, the Tower quietly resumed its day job as the lynch-pin of Britain’s terrestrial TV transmission.

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Enigma restored

Rather than entering a decline, the Tower has since experienced yet more public fascination by virtue of its sheer unattainability. A few years ago, rumours that the restaurant would re-open in time for the Olympics were reported as fact, with Gary Rhodes said to be the brains behind it all.  The idea was quietly shelved. The Tower did recently undergo one major alteration, however, when its defunct antennae were removed, exposing the central core.

The only access to the viewing platforms since 1981 has been for invitees of BT’s corporate parties, participants of occasional charity staircase runs, or Noel Edmonds during Christmas broadcasts. In 2010, 35,000 people registered for 500 spots on the Open House event, which indicates people’s enduring curiosity with London’s first skyscraper. Maybe you’re one of the lucky few to make a one-off ascent next month — or hoping to make the reserve list.

In 2003, the Tower was Grade II listed by English Heritage and also voted the capital’s ugliest building after the Barbican. Divisive as ever, then, and pleasantly ironic for a building which, at 50, is still excelling at its straightforward original role: connecting people with one another.

*Note for pedants: various communications masts were taller than the Post Office Tower, including the Crystal Palace mast that survives to this day. But the Fitzrovia tower was the tallest structure with habitable floors at the top in 1964. Please feel free to quibble definitions in the comments below. Images by M@.

Last Updated 09 September 2014

A Discoverer

Dear James

Great Piece.

Fascinating that the BT Tower, once at the forefront of technology sits there, largely obsolete, physically stripped of practically all the purposes it was intended for (the telephone exchange it houses could quite easily be moved). A symbol perhaps of the unrealised hopes of the age of the 'white heat of technology' promised by Harold Wilson and others at the time.

The revolving restaurant still works, or did when I was lucky enough to be invited there about three years ago, the fact that it is available only to the few at the invite of the private company that now owns it rather than to the public of the nation that built it maybe says something as pertinent about the times we now live in.

What a contrast to that other building turning 50 just across the way in Regent's Park. Denys Lasdun's Royal College of Physicians was beautifully and well-built as a private society, but now welcomes the public in with access to its collections and a museum that, in celebration of its anniversary and the centenary of its architect's birth, has an excellent exhibition on Denys Lasdun and British Modernism : https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/mu...

One can't help thinking that Britain would be an altogether better place if we had a few more Royal College of Physicians: grade I listed and still fit for purpose half a century on, and a few fewer BT Towers: inaccessible, trapped in a time warp and at a loss with what to do with themselves.

For all that, London's skyline wouldn't be the same without its increasingly gaunt and haunting figure.

Nauticat

Interesting that the writer pointed out that the tower was deliberatley missed off maps. It's also a complete myth that the IRA claimed responsibility. in fact no-one ever did!.

mckennawhite

Given that the various aerials and microwave dishes were also covered by the Grade II listing (they had to obtain clearance to remove them as a potential danger) they should have been obliged to replace them with fibreglass facsimiles or such. It looks all too anorexic towards the top these days, like a greenhouse with empty shelves.

mckennawhite

Oh, and I'd have to suggest that the whole terrorist thing has always been a bit of a ruse. The main reason why it could never re-open as a public venue is that it is inherently unsafe. Access is by lift only - no stairway. Even in 'The Towering Inferno' they had stairs.

Markylon

I have to disagree with the tower's first name. When it first opened it was known as the GPO Tower and not The Post Office Tower. The GPO was abolished in 1968 but the tower was known as The GPO Tower, then The Post Office Tower. Then The Telecom Tower and finally The BT Tower.

Will Wheatcroft

The BT Tower will always be special to my fiancée and I. I entered the 'Tweets On The Tower' competition last Christmas and used it to propose! It was beamed all across London. We'll always be thankful to the old eyesore!

ActionOnHearingLoss

Hi James, great article!

You might be interested to know that we still have a few places left on our last ever BT Tower Climb on October 31st this year. Participants can register here http://www.actiononhearingloss... for £25 (or £100 for a team of 5) with all proceeds going towards our community services and pioneering research into curing hearing loss and tinnitus.

As well as the Shard-busting views, everyone who takes apart will also enjoy a glass of bubbly and a massage at the top :)

Elliot
Action on Hearing Loss

Andrew Hayden

Happy Birthday to u. long may u stand. An iconic building and a major landmark

CO2VA

I remember when it opened, going up on the tube with mum and dad to marvel at it, standing at the bottom and gazing upwards at it just going on and on forever (at least to a 12 year old). I always imagined it housed something like Thunderbird 1! Great article, thanks.

Ed Jacks

We went last Friday with Redr. Brilliant. To see my pictures go to https://www.flickr.com/photos/... and simply click on the BT Tower albuml